This is not an enchanted love story, with the hero rushing in on horseback to save the damsel in distress. In this contemporary classic, the damsel is a little girl betrayed by her own body. And the hero isn’t on horseback – it is the horse itself.
“Liviya had only 1 percent of the normal blood platelets. Her bone marrow had shut down, and her t-cells were attacking everything,” said her father, Brian Anderson, of Raleigh, N.C. “Her immune system was killing her, when animal research gave Liviya a new chance on life.” Anderson told attendees at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention in Denver Saturday, in a presentation entitled “Liviya’s Story: How Animals Saved my Daughter’s Life.”
In 2010, Liviya Anderson, 6, developed a persistent fever. A visit to the pediatrician showed she didn’t have a common cold or strep throat. A trip to the emergency room revealed a devastating diagnosis: aplastic anemia, a rare and potentially fatal disease. The Anderson family soon found themselves on a roller-coaster ride filled with heart-wrenching falls and gut-twisting turns. It is a ride that they will never be able to get off.
Aplastic anemia is diagnosed in 2 out of 1 million people, or about 600 each year in the U.S. When first recognized in 1980, the disease had an 80 percent fatality rate. It is known to affect children, typically from ages 6 to 16, as well as adults, with the latter receiving a less-hopeful prognosis. The disease can be genetic or it can be, as in Liviya’s case, acquired by a virus, which, for an unknown reason, causes all the body’s cells to be “marked” for attack by immunity-fighting t-cells.
The first line of medical treatment is antibiotics, to kill the virus and keep the patient alive long enough to attempt to slowly build back the bone marrow. This is followed by immediate and continuous blood transfusions before administration of anti-thymocyte globulin, or ATG, via a port inserted into the jugular vein.
A purified animal serum, ATG is produced primarily by horses and rabbits. It is made to target particular cells in the human immune system. In Liviya’s case, the ATG waged war against her own t-cells, the cells that should have been protecting her but instead were causing disease. “The cells can’t be reprogrammed and are unpredictable, so they must be kept in a ‘drunkened’ state after the ATG is given,” said Anderson. “This immune suppression is done by injecting some serious medications. For Liviya, that meant receiving approximately 150 injections.”
Clinging to hope, the Anderson family endured many trips to the hospital, setbacks due to minor injuries, fears concerning allergic reactions to transfusions and the knowledge that a fever necessitated the need for an IV line of antibiotics within 15 minutes of an emergency-room visit. Finally, after several months, Liviya began to produce her own blood and bone marrow, and Dr. Brent Weston, her steadfast hematologist oncologist at the University of North Carolina Hospital, could do a “happy dance.”
Soon to be celebrating her 10th birthday, Liviya is by all accounts a healthy girl. Her blood levels are still improving, as shown by regular blood tests. She has always been crazy for everything equine and is thrilled, and grateful, that she is now “part horse.” However, Liviya is not cured; she lives with a 50 percent chance that the disease will return. There is no cure for aplastic anemia, only treatment entirely made possible through animal research. Her family is working tirelessly to raise awareness and money for a research grant to battle the disease.
Coincidentally, or perhaps by providence, Liviya’s dad has made his life career in biomedical research, working at several companies including Allentown, Inc., and Steris Corp. He is currently business development director for life sciences at Getinge, Inc., in Rochester, N.Y. “Many of us are never able to see the benefits of what we do at our jobs,” he said. “We just go through the motions without a clear appreciation of the importance of our work. Of course, that’s changed for me.
Through his work, he has been able to visit the life-saving, ATG-producing horses that saved his daughter’s life. “The horses were very well cared for, had the best of everything and were housed under immaculate conditions,” he added. “I was glad to have the chance to meet them and to say ‘thank you’ for what they are doing, for what they did for my family.”
Anderson does admit that there are two sides to every story, and animal research is an extremely heated topic, both for and against. “But the truth is, industry professionals are caring and respectful of the animals within their care. Studies are carried out under the best conditions,” he explained. “Without animal research, we would not have treatments, procedures or drugs available to make a difference. There is a point to the research, and that is saving lives of both animals and people.”