• β-globin;
  • β-thalassaemia;
  • gene targeting;
  • gene therapy;
  • sickle cell anaemia;
  • zinc finger nuclease



Mutations in the β-globin gene (HBB) cause haemoglobinopathies where current treatments have serious limitations. Gene correction by homologous recombination (HR) is an attractive approach to gene therapy for such diseases and is stimulated by gene-specific endonucleases, including zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs). Customised nucleases targeting HBB have previously been shown to promote HR-mediated HBB modification in 0.3–60% of drug-selected cells, although frequencies among unselected cells, more relevant to the goal of correcting HBB in primary stem cells, have not been reported.


ZFNs targeting HBB were tested for HBB binding (two-hybrid assay) or HBB cleavage followed by inaccurate end joining (surveyor assay) in bacteria or human cancer cell lines, respectively. ZFN-stimulated HR was measured in cell lines by a modified fluorescence-based reporter assay or by targeted insertion of a drug-resistance marker into endogenous HBB confirmed by Southern analyses.


Although the ZFNs that we assembled in-house showed limited potential, a commercially commissioned nuclease (ZFN4) enhanced HR-mediated HBB modification in up to 95% of drug-selected cells. Among unselected cells, however, this frequency was less than 0.2%. Furthermore, ZFN4 cleaved HBB at an efficiency of 1–2% (surveyor assay) and enhanced the HR reporter assay 20-fold less efficiently than a control endonuclease.


With ZFN4, we achieved higher efficiencies of HR-mediated HBB modification than previously reported for drug-selected cells. Our measurements of ZFN4-induced HR in unselected cells, however, suggest that improved nucleases must be developed if therapeutic HBB correction is to be achievable in primary stem cells. © 2013 The Authors. Journal of Gene Medicine published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.