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All viruses attack their hosts and introduce their genetic material into the host cell as part of their replication cycle. This genetic material contains basic 'instructions' of how to produce more copies of these viruses, hijacking the body's normal production machinery to serve the needs of the virus (see figure 1). The host cell will carry out these instructions and produce additional copies of the virus, leading to more and more cells becoming infected. Some types of viruses actually physically insert their genes into the host's genome. This incorporates the genes of that virus among the genes of the host cell for the life span of that cell.

Viruses like this could be used as vehicles to carry 'good' genes into a human cell. First, a scientist would remove the genes in the virus that cause disease. Then they would replace those genes with genes encoding the desired effect (for instance, insulin production in the case of diabetics). This procedure must be done in such a way that the genes which allow the virus to insert its genome into its host's genome are left intact.

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Figure 1. How do viruses work? Recommended: Learn more about viruses by viewing a very informative video called "Understanding viruses" (17 parts, total time 43:35, video will open a new window).

Many gene therapy clinical trials rely on retroviruses or adenoviruses to deliver the desired gene. Other viruses used as vectors include adeno-associated viruses, lentiviruses, pox viruses, alphaviruses, and herpes viruses. These viruses differ in how well they transfer genes to the cells they recognize and are able to infect, and whether they alter the cell’s DNA permanently or temporarily (see figure 2).

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Figure 2. A comparison of different viral vectors in use for gene therapy: overview of their advantages and disadvantages. * Adeno-associated viruses are able to integrate with low frequency into chromosome 19. Lentiviruses also infect non-dividing cells. You can also download the original image in high resolution as jpg or powerpoint file.

The concept of gene therapy seems straightforward, but this is clearly an oversimplification, and numerous problems and risks exist that prevent gene therapy using viral vectors. Viruses can usually infect more than one type of cell. Thus, when viral vectors are used to carry genes into the body, they might infect healthy cells as well as cancer cells.

Another danger is that the new gene might be inserted in the wrong location in the DNA, possibly causing harmful mutations to the DNA or even cancer. This has occurred in clinical trials for X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (X-SCID) patients, in which hematopoietic stem cells were transduced with a corrective transgene using a retrovirus, and this led to the development of T cell leukemia in 4 of 20 patients. See reports for first patient, second patient and third patient.

In addition, when viruses are used to deliver DNA to cells inside the patient’s body, there is a slight chance that this DNA could unintentionally be introduced into the patient’s reproductive cells. If this happens, it could produce changes that may be passed on if a patient has children after treatment.

Other concerns include the possibility that transferred genes could be overexpressed, producing so much of the missing protein as to be harmful; that the viral vector could cause an immune reaction; and that the virus could be transmitted from the patient to other individuals or into the environment.

However, this basic mode of gene introduction currently shows much promise and doctors and scientists are working hard to fix any potential problems that could exist. They use animal testing and other precautions to identify and avoid these risks before any clinical trials are conducted in humans.

Viral vectors have natural host cell populations that they infect most efficiently. Retroviruses have limited natural host cell ranges, and although adenovirus and adeno-associated virus are able to infect a relatively broader range of cells efficiently, some cell types are refractory to infection by these viruses as well. Attachment to and entry into a susceptible cell is mediated by the protein envelope on the surface of a virus.

Retroviruses and adeno-associated viruses have a single protein coating their membrane, while adenoviruses are coated with both an envelope protein and fibers that extend away from the surface of the virus. The envelope proteins on each of these viruses bind to cell-surface molecules such as heparin sulfate, which localizes them upon the surface of the potential host, as well as with the specific protein receptor that either induces entry-promoting structural changes in the viral protein, or localizes the virus in endosomes wherein acidification of the lumen (anatomy) induces this refolding of the viral coat. In either case, entry into potential host cells requires a favorable interaction between a protein on the surface of the virus and a protein on the surface of the cell.

For the purposes of gene therapy, one might either want to limit or expand the range of cells susceptible to transduction by a gene therapy vector. To this end, many vectors have been developed in which the endogenous viral envelope proteins have been replaced by either envelope proteins from other viruses, or by chimeric proteins. Such chimera would consist of those parts of the viral protein necessary for incorporation into the virion as well as sequences meant to interact with specific host cell proteins. Viruses in which the envelope proteins have been replaced as described are referred to as pseudotyped viruses.

For example, the most popular retroviral vector for use in gene therapy trials has been the lentivirus Simian immunodeficiency virus coated with the envelope proteins, G-protein, from Vesicular Stomatitus virus. This vector is referred to as VSV G-pseudotyped lentivirus, and infects an almost universal set of cells. This tropism is characteristic of the VSV G-protein with which this vector is coated.

Many attempts have been made to limit the tropism of viral vectors to one or a few host cell populations. This advance would allow for the systemic administration of a relatively small amount of vector. The potential for off-target cell modification would be limited, as well as many concerns from the medical community. Most attempts to limit tropism have used chimeric envelope proteins bearing antibody fragments. These vectors show great promise for the development of "magic bullet" gene therapies.