Immune-evasive gene switch enables regulated delivery of chondroitinase after spinal cord injury.
Burnside ER, De Winter F, Didangelos A, James ND, Andreica EC, Layard-Horsfall H, Muir EM, Verhaagen J, Bradbury EJ
Chondroitinase ABC is a promising preclinical therapy that promotes functional neuroplasticity after CNS injury by degrading extracellular matrix inhibitors. Efficient delivery of chondroitinase ABC to the injured mammalian spinal cord can be achieved by viral vector transgene delivery. This approach dramatically modulates injury pathology and restores sensorimotor functions. However, clinical development of this therapy is limited by a lack of ability to exert control over chondroitinase gene expression. Prior experimental gene regulation platforms are likely to be incompatible with the non-resolving adaptive immune response known to occur following spinal cord injury. Therefore, here we apply a novel immune-evasive dual vector system, in which the chondroitinase gene is under a doxycycline inducible regulatory switch, utilizing a chimeric transactivator designed to evade T cell recognition. Using this novel vector system, we demonstrate tight temporal control of chondroitinase ABC gene expression, effectively removing treatment upon removal of doxycycline. This enables a comparison of short and long-term gene therapy paradigms in the treatment of clinically-relevant cervical level contusion injuries in adult rats. We reveal that transient treatment (2.5 weeks) is sufficient to promote improvement in sensory axon conduction and ladder walking performance. However, in tasks requiring skilled reaching and grasping, only long term treatment (8 weeks) leads to significantly improved function, with rats able to accurately grasp and retrieve sugar pellets. The late emergence of skilled hand function indicates enhanced neuroplasticity and connectivity and correlates with increased density of vGlut1+ innervation in spinal cord grey matter, particularly in lamina III-IV above and below the injury. Thus, our novel gene therapy system provides an experimental tool to study temporal effects of extracellular matrix digestion as well as an encouraging step towards generating a safer chondroitinase gene therapy strategy, longer term administration of which increases neuroplasticity and recovery of descending motor control. This preclinical study could have a significant impact for tetraplegic individuals, for whom recovery of hand function is an important determinant of independence, and supports the ongoing development of chondroitinase gene therapy towards clinical application for the treatment of spinal cord injury.