Artificial Viruses Key To Corneal Transplant Gene Therapy

December 04, 1997

More than 60,000 corneal transplants are performed worldwide annually, restoring sight to people blinded through disease or accident. However, approximately a quarter of these new corneas are destroyed by the recipient's immune system within 4 years of the operation. At the British Society for Immunology Annual Congress in Brighton this week, Andrew George of Imperial College School of Medicine, London, will describe attempts to prevent this rejection using human genes and man-made viruses.

The cells of the immune system communicate using many different messenger molecules. Dr George and his colleagues have shown that one of these molecules, called tumour necrosis factor (TNF), is important in the process by which the immune system attacks and destroys grafted corneas. Scientists have designed a protein, based on one produced by the human body, which specifically binds to TNF and prevents it from passing on its destructive message. The team have successfully put the gene for this protein into corneal cells and shown that the protein is produced.

However, getting new genes into cells is far from straightforward. The conventional approach is to use harmless viruses to carry the new gene inside the cells. But these viruses can be destroyed by the patient's immune system too!

So Imperial College researchers are building viruses from DNA, protein and fat, which they hope will be able to sneak past the immune system. Dr George says, "our experience with making such artificial viruses is still in its infancy - certainly when compared to the millions of years that real viruses have had to hone and develop their ability to infect cells - so it's not surprising that they are not yet as efficient as the normal viruses. However, they are showing great promise and will provide the next generation of reagent for gene therapy."

The research is still at an early stage. However, it is already increasing our understanding of corneal graft rejection. The hope is that it will improve the outcome of these transplants for a wide range of patients, including children who have a particularly high risk of graft failure.

1. This research was carried out with support from the Iris Fund for Prevention of Blindness (Reg Ch No:293204).

2. Dr George will be speaking in the Transplantation Biology session on Thursday 4 December. The BSI 5th Annual Congress will be held at the Brighton Centre, Brighton, UK from 2-5 December 1997.

3. Dr Andrew George can be contacted at the Department of Immunology, Imperial College School of Medicine, Hammersmith campus, Hammersmith Hospital, Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN. Tel: +44 181 383 1475. Fax: +44 181 743 8602.

4. There will be a press office at the meeting, in operation from 9am on Tuesday 2 December. Tel: +44 1 273 724 320 / 0378 406 416 Journalists are welcome to attend but please call Kirstie Urquhart in advance to register.

5. Before the meeting Kirstie can be contacted on +44 181 875 2402 /

British Society For Immunology

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