γ-Retroviral vectors (γRVs), which are commonly used in gene therapy, can trigger oncogenesis by insertional mutagenesis. Here, we have dissected the contribution of vector design and viral integration site selection (ISS) to oncogenesis using an in vivo genotoxicity assay based on transplantation of vector-transduced tumor-prone mouse hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells. By swapping genetic elements between γRV and lentiviral vectors (LVs), we have demonstrated that transcriptionally active long terminal repeats (LTRs) are major determinants of genotoxicity even when reconstituted in LVs and that self-inactivating (SIN) LTRs enhance the safety of γRVs. By comparing the genotoxicity of vectors with matched active LTRs, we were able to determine that substantially greater LV integration loads are required to approach the same oncogenic risk as γRVs. This difference in facilitating oncogenesis is likely to be explained by the observed preferential targeting of cancer genes by γRVs. This integration-site bias was intrinsic to γRVs, as it was also observed for SIN γRVs that lacked genotoxicity in our model. Our findings strongly support the use of SIN viral vector platforms and show that ISS can substantially modulate genotoxicity.
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