While replication-defective retroviral vectors provide excellent vehicles for the long-term expression of therapeutic genes, they also harbor the potential to induce undesired genetic changes by random insertions into the host genome. The rate of insertional mutagenesis for retroviral vectors has been determined in several different assay systems; however, the rate at which such events induce cellular transformation has not been directly determined. Such measurements are critical to determining the actual risk of carcinogenesis resulting from retroviral gene therapy. In this study, the ability of a replication-defective retroviral vector, GlnBgSvNa, to induce cellular transformation in the BALB/c-3T3 in vitro transformation assay was assessed. The transformation frequency observed in vector-transduced BALB/c-3T3 cells, which contained one to six copies of integrated provirus, was not significantly different from that of untreated control cells. The finding that GlnBgSvNa was nontransforming in this assay indicates that the rate of transformation induced by retroviral insertions is less than the spontaneous rate of cellular transformation by BALB/c-3T3 cells, or less than 1.1 x 10(-5). These results are the first to define an upper limit for the rate of transformation induced by retroviral vectors.