Leukemia after gene therapy for sickle cell disease: insertional mutagenesis, busulfan, both, or neither

Richard J. Jones, Michael R. DeBaun

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Recently, encouraging data provided long-awaited hope for gene therapy as a cure for sickle cell disease (SCD). Nevertheless, the transient suspension of the bluebird bio gene therapy trial (clinicaltrials.gov: NCT02140554) after participants developed acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndrome (AML/MDS) raised concerns. Potential possibilities for these cases include busulfan, insertional mutagenesis, both, or neither. Busulfan was considered the cause in the first reported case because the transgene was not present in the AML/MDS. However, busulfan is unlikely to have contributed to the most recent case. The transgene was present in the patient's malignant cells, indicating they were infused after busulfan treatment. Several lines of evidence suggest an alternative explanation for events in the bluebird bio trial, including that SCD population studies show an increased relative, but a low absolute, risk of AML/MDS. We propose a new hypothesis: after gene therapy for SCD, the stress of switching from homeostatic to regenerative hematopoiesis by transplanted cells drives clonal expansion and leukemogenic transformation of preexisting premalignant clones, eventually resulting in AML/MDS. Evidence validating our hypothesis will support prescreening individuals with SCD for preleukemic progenitors before gene therapy. While presumed viable, safe strategy has been implemented to resume gene therapy in adults with severe SCD, reasonable alternative curative therapy should be considered for children and adults with severe SCD. Currently, open multicenter clinical trials are incorporating nonmyeloablative conditioning, related haploidentical donors, and posttransplantation cyclophosphamide. Preliminary results from these trials appear promising, and National Institutes of Health–sponsored trials are ongoing in individuals with SCD using this platform.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)942-947
Number of pages6
Issue number11
StatePublished - Sep 16 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Immunology
  • Hematology
  • Cell Biology


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