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Gene Therapy Works for 'Bubble Boy' Disease

9 Years Later, 14 Out of 16 Kids With the Rare Disease Leading Normal Lives
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Young boy with hand on glass

Aug. 24, 2011 -- Nine years after getting gene therapy for a rare, inherited immune system disorder often called "bubble boy disease," 14 out of 16 children are doing well, researchers report.

The children were born with severe combined immunodeficiency disease (SCID). They got an experimental gene therapy in the U.K.

A new report shows that nine years later, 14 of the 16 children had working immune systems and were leading normal lives.

“These children, who would have died very young without treatment, are participating in life as fully as their brothers and sisters,” researcher H. Bobby Gaspar, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. “Most of them are going to school, playing ball, and going to parties.”

Few Treatment Options for SCID

Children with SCID carry genetic defects that prevent their immune systems from working. Without treatment, most die from infection in their first two years of life.

One exception was David Vetter, a Texas boy born in 1971. Vetter lived in a specially constructed sterile plastic bubble from birth until his death at age 12. He became famous as the "bubble boy," and his story made many people aware of SCID for the first time.

For decades, the treatment has been to get transplants of blood-forming stem cells from the bone marrow of matched siblings or other donors who have healthy immune systems.

Such transplants can effectively cure the disorder. But only about one in five children with SCID have a perfectly matched donor.

Bone marrow from partially matched donors can also be used. But those mismatched transplants are much more risky. About one in three children who have them die from the procedure.

About a decade ago, researchers discovered a way to manipulate a patient’s own genes to manufacture the missing part of the gene needed to make the immune system work.

Since that time, gene therapy has been used to treat dozens of children with SCID, says UCLA researcher Donald B. Kohn, MD, who did not participate in the U.K. study.

How the Children Fared

“The big picture here is that almost 10 years down the line, all of these children are alive and 14 of 16 have been able to correct their immune systems,” Gaspar says. “With [mismatched] transplants, we would have lost two to four of them.”

The 16 children with SCID who got the gene therapy ranged in age from 6 months to 3 years. Four of them had the ADA-deficiency type of SCID. The other kids had the X1 form of SCID. Those are the two most common types of SCID.

For most of the children, gene therapy was a success. But one boy who had the X1 form of SCID developed treatment-related leukemia. The complication was not unexpected, Gaspar says, because four children with the X1 from of SCID in a French study had developed leukemia after getting the gene therapy.

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