The Salk researchers, led by Inder Verma, Ph.D., a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics, discovered that the healthy copy, which replaces the defective gene can itself promote cancer development. Their findings appear in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Niels-Bjarne R. Woods, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in Inder Verma's team followed mice treated with the IL2RG gene three times longer than any study had ever before, and found that one-third of the animals developed lymphoma later in their life. This is the same gene being given to patients with X-linked severe combined immune deficiency (X-SCID) ?commonly known as the "bubble boy" syndrome ?in small clinical trials being conducted in France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Although replacement of IL2RG can cure X-SCID, the Salk scientists urge caution in the use of such therapy on the basis of their new findings.
"We were surprised by the strength of the association between IL2RG gene therapy and development of lymphoma," says Woods. "These results suggest that curing X-SCID by replacing IL2RG in the manner it is currently being done puts patients at an increased risk of developing cancer."
Woods adds that the study could explain why one of three children in the French trial developed T-cell leukemia. Two developed the disease because IL2RG inserted itself into the cellular genome next to a known cancer-causing gene and activated it, but the cause of the third cancer case had not been solved.
The French trial is the largest to date to test IL2RG gene therapy, and of the 10 children treated, nine were successfully cured of X-SCID, although cancer was diagnosed in three of the children. Halted for a time, the trial is now continuin