DURHAM, N.C. — A cold or common virus might make people sick, but it usually is not deadly. For children born without an immune system, one cough or sneeze could be life-threatening.
Thanks to the treatment at Duke, some children are getting the chance to live normal lives.
Denim Fry is about to turn 2 years old. It is a milestone no one thought he would reach.
"To have another child and have them tell you he's not completely correct, or not completely well, it's definitely hard to fathom," his father, Jeff said.
Denim has complete DiGeorge syndrome, a rare condition where children do not have a thymus -- the small gland on top of the heart where white blood cells learn how to become infection-fighting T cells.
DiGeorge syndrome is usually fatal.
"They will die from infection. They will die -- two-thirds by one year and the rest by two years [of age]," said Dr. Louise Markert, a pediatric immunologist at Duke Medical Center.
Markert leads the world's only thymus transplant program. Thymus tissue discarded from pediatric heart surgeries is implanted into the thighs of DiGeorge patients. The thymus tissue gives the children the T-cell boost they need.
"Of the 12 patients transplanted here at Duke, seven developed functioning immune systems. All of them are healthy and living at home," Markert said.
With the success of the treatment, Markert can follow her patients through childhood -- something she could never do before.
"I follow up with those children, go to their birthday parties, that sort of thing. They're doing very well. They're at home with their families, going to school. It's very exciting," she said.
It is even more exciting for children like Denim, and their families, who get to celebrate another birthday.
"For his second birthday, we're inviting the city," Jeff Fry said.
The five children who did not develop immune systems following the thymus transplant died.
Market asks parents of the heart surgery patients for permission to take the tissue for the transplant before their surgeries.