Twenty-Five Years of Gene Therapy for ADA-SCID: From Bubble Babies to an Approved Drug

Hum Gene Ther. 2017 Nov;28(11):972-981. doi: 10.1089/hum.2017.175.


Twenty-five years have passed since first attempts of gene therapy (GT) in children affected by severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) due to adenosine deaminase (ADA) defect, also known by the general public as bubble babies. ADA-SCID is fatal early in life if untreated. Unconditioned hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) transplant from matched sibling donor represents a curative treatment but is available for few patients. Enzyme replacement therapy can be life-saving, but its chronic use has many drawbacks. This review summarizes the history of ADA-SCID GT over the last 25 years, starting from first pioneering studies in the early 1990s using gamma-retroviral vectors, based on multiple infusions of genetically corrected autologous peripheral blood lymphocytes. HSC represented the ideal target for gene correction to guarantee production of engineered multi-lineage progeny, but it required a decade to achieve therapeutic benefit with this approach. Introduction of low-intensity conditioning represented a crucial step in achieving stable gene-corrected HSC engraftment and therapeutic levels of ADA-expressing cells. Recent clinical trials demonstrated that gamma-retroviral GT for ADA-SCID has a favorable safety profile and is effective in restoring normal purine metabolism and immune functions in patients >13 years after treatment. No abnormal clonal proliferation or leukemia development have been observed in >40 patients treated experimentally in five different centers worldwide. In 2016, the medicinal product Strimvelis™ received marketing approval in Europe for patients affected by ADA-SCID without a suitable human leukocyte antigen-matched related donor. Positive safety and efficacy results have been obtained in GT clinical trials using lentiviral vectors encoding ADA. The results obtained in last 25 years in ADA-SCID GT development fundamentally contributed to improve patients' prognosis, together with earlier diagnosis thanks to newborn screening. These advances open the way to further clinical development of GT as treatment for broader applications, from inherited diseases to cancer.

Keywords: ADA-SCID; adenosine deaminase; clinical trial; gene therapy; primary immunodeficiency.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Deaminase / genetics
  • Adenosine Deaminase / therapeutic use*
  • Enzyme Replacement Therapy
  • Genetic Therapy*
  • Genetic Vectors / genetics
  • Genetic Vectors / therapeutic use*
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation
  • Humans
  • Retroviridae / genetics
  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency / genetics
  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency / therapy*


  • Adenosine Deaminase