Pippie Kruger: a courageous stem cell success story

Isabella “Pippie” Kruger was made famous when, as a 2 and a half-year-old burn victim from Limpopo, she received a ­revolutionary skin transplant operation. Pippie was severely burned when a bottle of gel firelighter exploded while her father was lighting a braai on New Year’s Eve. She suffered 80% full thickness third-degree burns. She was given a 3% chance of survival by her doctors. The skin graft was grown from her own cells in a laboratory in the United States, because the technology was not available in South Africa. It was the first time the procedure was performed in Africa.  However, 5 heart attacks, 5 strokes, kidney failure, lung collapses, sepsis and almost 60 operations later, she survived.

The medical director, Dr Barrett at Genzyme-Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company owns the rights to the technology known as Epicel. Epicel produces skin for people with extensive burn wounds by extracting stem cells from small patches of patients’ healthy skin. They are placed on a layer of inactive mice cells and fed with special proteins that allow them to grow into thin layers of skin that can cover burns. Epicel is indicated for adult and pediatric patients who have deep dermal or full-thickness burns comprising a total body surface area greater than or equal to 30%.

The skin was cultured in America and sent to Johannesburg on a 21-hour flight and working with plastic surgeon Ridwan Mia to ensure that it was transplanted to Pippie within three hours of arriving in South Africa.

The Epicel procedure is a costly procedure and luckily the Kruger family managed to raise more than R700 000 for the Epicel procedure through a trust fund that was started by a friend. With the help of  Facebook and almost 10 000 followers, this was accomplished. Pippie’s story has been told in 71 newspapers across the world and by many global radio and television stations.

Pippie now 13 is no stranger to the operating table. Since the disastrous burns accident she suffered as toddler, the young girl has been through a gamut of surgeries, and recently she had her 62nd operation.

Her mom, Anicè, for whom hospitals and air travel have become a way of life, believes this procedure has made a significant difference to her daughter’s quality of life.

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