Tissue- or cell-specific targeting of vectors is critical to the success of gene therapy. We describe a novel approach to virus-mediated gene therapy, where viral replication and associated cytotoxicity are limited to a specific cell type by the regulated expression of an essential immediate-early viral gene product. This is illustrated with a herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) vector (G92A) whose growth is restricted to albumin-expressing cells. G92A was constructed by inserting an albumin enhancer/promoter-ICP4 transgene into the thymidine kinase gene of mutant HSV-1 d120, deleted for both copies of the ICP4 gene. This vector also contains the Escherichia coli lacZ gene under control of the thymidine kinase promoter, a viral early promoter, to permit easy detection of infected cells containing replicating vector. In the adult, albumin is expressed uniquely in the liver and in hepatocellular carcinoma and is transcriptionally regulated. The plaquing efficiency of G92A is > 10(3) times higher on human hepatoma cells than on non-albumin-expressing human cells. The growth kinetics of G92A in albumin-expressing cells is delayed compared with that of wild-type HSV-1, likely due to aberrant expression of ICP4 protein. Cells undergoing a productive infection expressed detectable levels of ICP4 protein, as well as the reporter gene product beta-galactosidase. Confining a productive, cytotoxic viral infection to a specific cell type should be useful for tumor therapy and the ablation of specific cell types for the generation of animal models of disease
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