Gene therapy getting approved to treat major diseases of muscle and blood

Researchers review the pioneering work that led the gene therapy field to its current state, describe gene-editing technologies that are expected to play a major role in the field’s future, and discuss practical challenges in getting these therapies to patients who need them.

Above- Three essential tools for human gene therapy. AAV and lentiviral vectors are the basis of several recently approved gene therapies. Gene editing technologies are in their translational and clinical infancy but are expected to play an increasing role in the field.

Nearly five decades ago, visionary scientists hypothesized that genetic modification by exogenous DNA might be an effective treatment for inherited human diseases. This “gene therapy” strategy offered the theoretical advantage that a durable and possibly curative clinical benefit would be achieved by a single treatment. Although the journey from concept to clinical application has been long and tortuous, gene therapy is now bringing new treatment options to multiple fields of medicine. We review critical discoveries leading to the development of successful gene therapies, focusing on direct in vivo administration of viral vectors, adoptive transfer of genetically engineered T cells or hematopoietic stem cells, and emerging genome editing technologies.

The development of gene delivery vectors such as replication-defective retro viruses and adeno-associated virus (AAV), coupled with encouraging results in preclinical disease models, led to the initiation of clinical trials in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, these early trials exposed serious therapy-related toxicities, including inflammatory responses to the vectors and malignancies caused by vector-mediated insertional activation of proto-oncogenes. These setbacks fueled more basic research in virology, immunology, cell biology, model development, and target disease, which ultimately led to successful clinical translation of gene therapies in the 2000s. Lentiviral vectors improved efficiency of gene transfer to nondividing cells. In early-phase clinical trials, these safer and more efficient vectors were used for transduction of autologous hematopoietic stem cells, leading to clinical benefit in patients with immunodeficiencies, hemoglobinopathies, and metabolic and storage disorders. T cells engineered to express CD19-specific chimeric antigen receptors were shown to have potent antitumor activity in patients with lymphoid malignancies. In vivo delivery of therapeutic AAV vectors to the retina, liver, and nervous system resulted in clinical improvement in patients with congenital blindness, hemophilia B, and spinal muscular atrophy, respectively. In the United States, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals of the first gene therapy products occurred in 2017, including chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)–T cells to treat B cell malignancies and AAV vectors for in vivo treatment of congenital blindness. Promising clinical trial results in neuromuscular diseases and hemophilia will likely result in additional approvals in the near future.

In recent years, genome editing technologies have been developed that are based on engineered or bacterial nucleases. In contrast to viral vectors, which can mediate only gene addition, genome editing approaches offer a precise scalpel for gene addition, gene ablation, and gene “correction.” Genome editing can be performed on cells ex vivo or the editing machinery can be delivered in vivo to effect in situ genome editing. Translation of these technologies to patient care is in its infancy in comparison to viral gene addition therapies, but multiple clinical genome editing trials are expected to open over the next decade.

Building on decades of scientific, clinical, and manufacturing advances, gene therapies have begun to improve the lives of patients with cancer and a variety of inherited genetic diseases. Partnerships with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies with expertise in manufacturing and scale-up will be required for these therapies to have a broad impact on human disease. Many challenges remain, including understanding and preventing genotoxicity from integrating vectors or off-target genome editing, improving gene transfer or editing efficiency to levels necessary for treatment of many target diseases, preventing immune responses that limit in vivo administration of vectors or genome editing complexes, and overcoming manufacturing and regulatory hurdles. Importantly, a societal consensus must be reached on the ethics of germline genome editing in light of rapid scientific advances that have made this a real, rather than hypothetical, issue. Finally, payers and gene therapy clinicians and companies will need to work together to design and test new payment models to facilitate delivery of expensive but potentially curative therapies to patients in need. The ability of gene therapies to provide durable benefits to human health, exemplified by the scientific advances and clinical successes over the past several years, justifies continued optimism and increasing efforts toward making these therapies part of our standard treatment armamentarium for human disease.

After almost 30 years of promise tempered by setbacks, gene therapies are rapidly becoming a critical component of the therapeutic armamentarium for a variety of inherited and acquired human diseases. Gene therapies for inherited immune disorders, hemophilia, eye and neurodegenerative disorders, and lymphoid cancers recently progressed to approved drug status in the United States and Europe, or are anticipated to receive approval in the near future. In this Review, we discuss milestones in the development of gene therapies, focusing on direct in vivo administration of viral vectors and adoptive transfer of genetically engineered T cells or hematopoietic stem cells. We also discuss emerging genome editing technologies that should further advance the scope and efficacy of gene therapy approaches.


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