This study evaluated the ability of gene transfer to enhance bone healing. Segmental defects were created surgically in the femora of New Zealand white rabbits. First generation adenoviruses were used as vectors to introduce into the defects genes encoding either human bone morphogenetic protein-2 (BMP-2) or, as a negative control, firefly luciferase. Representative specimens were evaluated histologically after 8 weeks. Healing of the defects was monitored radiographically for 12 weeks, after which time the repair tissue was evaluated biomechanically. By radiological criteria, animals receiving the BMP-2 gene had healed their osseous lesions after 7 weeks, whereas those receiving the luciferase gene had not. Histologic examination of representative rabbits at 8 weeks confirmed ossification across the entire defect in response to the BMP-2 gene, whereas the control defect was predominantly fibrotic and sparsely ossified. At the end of the 12-week experiment, the control femora still showed no radiological signs of stable healing. The difference in radiologically defined healing between the experimental and control groups was statistically significant (P < 0. 002). Biomechanical testing of the femora at 12 weeks demonstrated statistically significant increases in the mean bending strength (P < 0.005) and bending stiffness (P < 0.05) of the animals treated with the BMP-2 gene. Direct, local adenoviral delivery of an osteogenic gene thus led to the healing of an osseous lesion that otherwise would not do so. These promising data encourage the further development of genetic approaches to enhancing bone healing. Gene Therapy (2000) 7, 734-739.