AIDS activist Jeff Getty dies at 49

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JOSHUA TREE, Calif. - Jeff Getty, a prominent AIDS activist who in 1995 received the first bone-marrow transplant from a baboon to treat the disease, has died. He was 49.

Getty died Monday of heart failure, following treatment for cancer and a long struggle with AIDS, at the High Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree, said Ken Klueh, his partner of 26 years.

Before antiviral drug combinations were used successfully by AIDS patients, Getty grabbed national attention in December 1995 for becoming the first person ever to receive a bone marrow cell transfusion from one species to another. His transplant at San Francisco General Hospital used cells taken from a baboon, with the hope that the primate's natural AIDS resistance would take root in his own system.

The procedure, ultimately unsuccessful, sparked furious debate over the moral and medical implications of cross-species transplants.

"That trial reflects the level of desperation at the time," said Dr. Steven Deeks, the University of California, San Francisco, professor who was the experiment's lead investigator. "Jeff was just hanging on to his life. He inspired us that a risky and aggressive intervention was worth trying."

While the baboon bone marrow cells quickly disappeared from his system, Getty's health seemed to dramatically improve. He went on help pave the way for the drug cocktail HAART — or highly active antiretroviral therapy — that routinely keeps many HIV and AIDS patients alive today.

"He is emblematic of a whole group of men who survived AIDS in the early 1980s and 1990s, and made it into the HAART era, but had developed so much resistance to the drugs that they never got their virus fully under control," Deeks said.

Since being diagnosed with AIDS in the days when the disease still was known as "the gay cancer," Getty was a fierce activist, volunteering to test experimental drugs, getting thrown in jail for protesting against pharmaceutical companies and even throwing a coffin on a hospital lawn to demand organ transplants for patients.

"He was the bravest of the brave. He was committed to getting results, even where it was clear that it wouldn't help him," said state Sen. Carole Migden, who worked with Getty when she was an Assembly member.

A former University of California policy analyst, Getty had a keen intellect that helped him navigate the science and politics of the disease, but he also could be difficult and demanding, colleagues said.

"He wasn't easy to work with," said Michael Lauro, an organizer who teamed with Getty in the advocacy groups Act Up Golden Gate and Survive AIDS. "That's how people with great vision, great hearts, and great drive are like. He could get things done."

Getty is survived by Klueh, his father and two sisters.

Plans for a memorial service were pending.

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