Gene therapy may finally be living up to its early promise. In the past six years the experimental procedure for placing healthy genes wherever they are needed in the body has restored sight in about 40 people with a hereditary form of blindness. Doctors have seen unprecedented results among another 120-plus patients with various cancers of the blood—several of whom remain free of malignancy three years after treatment. Researchers have also used gene therapy to enable a few men with hemophilia, a sometimes fatal bleeding disorder, to go longer without dangerous incidents or the need for high doses of clotting drugs.
The positive results are even more impressive considering that the field of gene therapy essentially ground to a halt 15 years ago, following the untimely death of Jesse Gelsinger, a teenager with a rare digestive disorder. Gelsinger's immune system reacted to the gene treatment he received by launching a counterattack of unexpected ferocity that killed him. Gene therapy's preliminary successes in the 1990s, it turns out, had fueled unreasonably high expectations among doctors and researchers—and perhaps a bit of hubris.