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Delivering genes across the blood-brain barrier

Caltech biologists have modified a harmless virus in such a way that it can successfully enter the adult mouse brain through the bloodstream and deliver genes to cells of the nervous system. The virus could help researchers map the intricacies of the brain and holds promise for the delivery of novel therapeutics to address diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. In addition, the screening approach the researchers developed to identify the virus could be used to make additional vectors capable of targeting cells in other organs.

“By figuring out a way to get genes across the blood-brain barrier, we are able to deliver them throughout the adult brain with high efficiency,” says Ben Deverman, a senior research scientist at Caltech and lead author of a paper describing the work in the February 1 online publication of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The blood-brain barrier allows the body to keep pathogens and potentially harmful chemicals circulating in the blood from entering the brain and spinal cord. The semi-permeable blockade, composed of tightly packed cells, is crucial for maintaining a controlled environment to allow the central nervous system to function properly. However, the barrier also makes it nearly impossible for many drugs and other molecules to be delivered to the brain via the bloodstream.

To sneak genes past the blood-brain barrier, the Caltech researchers used a new variant of a small, harmless virus called an adeno-associated virus (AAV). Over the past two decades, researchers have used various AAVs as vehicles to transport specific genes into the nuclei of cells; once there, the genes can be expressed, or translated, from DNA into proteins. In some applications, the AAVs carry functional copies of genes to replace mutated forms present in individuals with genetic diseases. In other applications, they are used to deliver genes that provide instructions for generating molecules such as antibodies or fluorescent proteins that help researchers study, identify, and track certain cells.

Largely because of the blood-brain barrier problem, scientists have had only limited success delivering AAVs and their genetic cargo to the central nervous system. In general, they have relied on surgical injections, which deliver high concentrations of the virus at the injection site but little to the outlying areas. Such injections are also quite invasive. “One has to drill a hole through skull, then pierce tissue with a needle to the injection site,” explains Viviana Gradinaru (BS ’05), assistant professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech and senior author on the paper. “The deeper the injection, the higher the risk of hemorrhage. With systemic injection, using the bloodstream, none of that damage happens, and the delivery is more uniform.”