Entering the Modern Era of Gene Therapy

The ideal gene therapy practice is that which replaces the defective gene with a normal allele at its natural location. This is advantageous over a virally delivered gene as there is no need to include the full coding sequences and regulatory sequences when only a small proportions of the gene needs to be altered as is often the case. The expression of the partially replaced genes is also more consistent with normal cell biology than full genes that are carried by viral vectors.

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The first clinical use of TALEN-based genome editing was in the treatment of CD19+ acute lymphoblastic leukemia in an 11-month old child in 2015. Modified donor T cells were engineered to attack the leukemia cells, to be resistant to Alemtuzumab, and to evade detection by the host immune system after introduction.

Extensive research has been done in cells and animals using CRISPR-Cas9 to attempt to correct genetic mutations which cause genetic diseases such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, anencephaly, and Turner and Klinefelter syndromes.

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In February 2019, medical scientists working with Sangamo Therapeutics, headquartered in Richmond, California, announced the first ever "in body" human gene editing therapy to permanently alter DNA - in a patient with Hunter Syndrome. Clinical trials by Sangamo involving gene editing using Zinc Finger Nuclease (ZFN) are ongoing.



In order to replicate, viruses introduce their genetic material into the host cell, tricking the host's cellular machinery into using it as blueprints for viral proteins. Retroviruses go a stage further by having their genetic material copied into the genome of the host cell. Scientists exploit this by substituting a virus's genetic material with therapeutic DNA.

A number of viruses have been used for human gene therapy, including retroviruses, adenoviruses, herpes simplex, vaccinia, and adeno-associated virus. Like the genetic material (DNA or RNA) in viruses, therapeutic DNA can be designed to simply serve as a temporary blueprint that is degraded naturally or (at least theoretically) to enter the host's genome, becoming a permanent part of the host's DNA in infected cells.


Non-viral methods present certain advantages over viral methods, such as large scale production and low host immunogenicity. However, non-viral methods initially produced lower levels of transfection and gene expression, and thus lower therapeutic efficacy. Newer technologies offer promise of solving these problems, with the advent of increased cell-specific targeting and subcellular trafficking control.

Methods for non-viral gene therapy include the injection of naked DNA, electroporation, the gene gun, sonoporation, magnetofection, the use of oligonucleotides, lipoplexes, dendrimers, and inorganic nanoparticles.