Yellow Light on Gene Transfer Studies


Among the greatest heartbreaks in the field of gene transfer have been problems encountered in trials involving a rare, hereditary immune disorder, X-SCID (known popularly as “Bubble Boy” syndrome).  As is well known, a team of researchers based in Paris– and then in London– successfully reversed severe immunodeficiencies in 20 or so children using retroviral gene transfer starting around year 2000.  Shortly thereafter, however, the Paris team began observing rare leukemic disorders that were causally related to the gene transfer. To date, the Paris team has reported 4 cases of leukemia, with one leading to death. The London team has reported one leukemia.

In response to these events, the U.S. Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) recommended that investigators only use retroviral gene transfer in the most severe situations– namely, where patients are ineligible for even high risk alternative care options like haploidentical stem cell transplantation.  RAC’s recommendations were stricter than those in the U.K., which allowed children to enter a study even if they were candidates for haploidentical transplants.  

As reported in the current issue of Molecular Therapy, the RAC recently decided to liberalize its recommendations, allowing retroviral gene transfer in children who are eligible for halploidentical transplantation. RACs recommendations are still somewhat stricter than those of the UK, because the former recommends against retroviral gene transfer in children who are candidates for haploidentical transplantation but under 3.5 years age (children in this category respond better to haploidentical transplants). RAC additionally supported a similar trial involving a different vector that integrates its genome into the host’s (lentiviral vectors, which are derived from HIV).

Is this gentle liberalization of standards justified?  Some will argue that the benefits of haploidentical transplantation are variable and undependable, and that since initial leukemias have been reported, researchers have made progress in improving the safety of their vectors. All this might be true, if one were evaluating this as a clinical judgment.

However, the judgment is better viewed through the lens of research rather than therapy. Though laboratory testing indicates that new retroviral and lentiviral vectors are safer than the old ones, there remain substantial uncertainties. For example, current assays for determining the oncogenicity of integrating vectors are not well worked out. Neither the new retroviral vectors nor lentiviral vectors have been used in blood stem cell gene transfer in a pediatric population. The effect of lentiviral vectors on gene sequences near their integrating sites remains poorly understood. In short, the null hypothesis of new trials is that these new vectors are no better than the old ones.

What’s the safest way to refute this null hypothesis and confirm what many think, on laboratory evidence, will be the case? In my view, the safest approach– for patients as well as the field in general, which stands to lose much from another major toxicity– is to begin with the most narrow medical indication possible, which means excluding children who stand a chance of benefiting from standard (albeit suboptimal) care.  (photo credit: Jamelah 2007)


    title = {Yellow Light on Gene Transfer Studies},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2009,
    month = may,
    day = 12,
    url = {}


Jonathan Kimmelman. "Yellow Light on Gene Transfer Studies" Web blog post. STREAM research. 12 May 2009. Web. 29 May 2024. <>


Jonathan Kimmelman. (2009, May 12). Yellow Light on Gene Transfer Studies [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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