The primary aim of this project is to develop treatments for incurable diseases of the blood and immune system. X-linked Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (X-SCID) and Fanconi anemia (FA) are two blood diseases where mutations in a single gene results in the disease. XSCID, more commonly known as the “bubble boy” disease, is characterized by a complete failure of the immune system, and typically results in early childhood fatality. The most common treatment for X-SCID is bone marrow transplant using a matched sibling donor. Unfortunately, the lack of suitable donors limits the application of this treatment. In 2000, the first gene therapy “success” resulted in X-SCID patients with a functional immune system. These trials were stopped when it was discovered that several patients in one trial had developed lymphoma, a blood related cancer resulting from unintended consequences of the therapy. FA is a disease where the stability of a patients genome is compromised and results in premature cell death and lethal anemia. Gene therapy trials for such patients have been largely unsuccessful due to the inability to culture the affected cells long enough for the correction of the gene. Like XSCID there is a shortage of suitable bone marrow donors for patients, thus development of treatments via other methods is warranted.
From this study and others we have learned: 1) gene therapy can work to cure certain diseases, 2) adequate safeguards must be developed to prevent unintended cancer formation, and 3) we need better sources of matched cells and tissues to avoid the problems of rejection.
Our approach starts with a patient’s skin, hair follicle or other easily accessible adult cell/tissue sample and employs a newly developed and robust technique to safely reprogram these cells back to an induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell fate, which is similar to that of embryonic stem cells in potential, but is patient specific thereby avoiding downstream problems of immune rejection. The iPS cell is a good candidate for repair of the specific genetic defects that cause diseases like X-SCID and FA. We have successfully reprogrammed cells from human patients of each of these diseases to generate iPS cell lines. We are employing the latest technology to perform genetic correction of these cells. In parallel we are advancing the state-of-the-art in developing reliable methods to direct the differentiation of these disease corrected stem cells into the appropriate therapeutic cell types capable of reconstituting the blood and immune systems and thereby effecting cures for these hematological diseases.