Repeated injections of large doses of erythropoietin (Epo) have been shown to be of benefit in the treatment of murine and human beta- thalassemia. To determine whether Epo gene therapy could replace this treatment for long-term periods, lethally irradiated beta-thalassemic (Hbbd3th haplotype) and normal DBA/2J (Hbbd haplotype) mice were grafted with syngeneic bone marrow cells infected with a retroviral vector carrying the Epo cDNA. In normal mice, dysregulated Epo production induced elevated serum Epo levels (176 +/- 68 mU/mL), high hematocrit levels (73% +/- 8%), and elevated beta-minor globin chain synthesis. In contrast, in thalassemic mice, moderate increases in the hematocrit levels (from 33% +/- 1% to 43% +/- 9%), associated with limited increases in the initially elevated Epo levels (from 83 +/- 22 to 190 +/- 230 mU/mL), were recorded 2 months after transplantation. In mice in which the hematocrit increased most, from 33% +/- 1% before transplantation to 49% +/- 10%, the retroviral Epo gene expression induced a striking improvement of the beta-thalassemic syndrome. These mice exhibited normal or near-normal beta/alpha-globin chain synthesis ratios, induced by the activation of the beta-minor chain. This led to the elimination of the high amounts of unpaired alpha chains in erythrocytes and finally reduced the reticulocyte count despite the permanent Epo stimulation. These results show that efficient Epo gene expression corrects the erythrocyte phenotype of the mouse beta- thalassemic syndrome. However, the incidence of lethal polycythemia or of transient improvements indicates that the present strategy is only the first step toward such indirect gene therapy.

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