Critical size defects of bone and delayed fracture healing due to metabolic disorders are still problems in orthopaedic surgery. Adenoviral vectors encoding bone morphogenetic protein-2 (Ad.BMP-2) have been used to stimulate bone formation in small animals. The present study evaluated the use of direct adenoviral gene transfer for inducing bone formation in a large animal. Standardized iliac crest defects were created surgically on both sides of the pelvic bone of white mountain sheep. The efficiency of gene transfer was evaluated using recombinant adenoviruses carrying the cDNA for luciferase. High levels of transgene expression, restricted to the site of injection, were found for the 1st week. Transgene expression then fell considerably, but could still be detected for up to 5 weeks. To investigate the effect on bone healing, Ad.BMP-2 (10(11) particles in 200 mul saline) was unilaterally injected into iliac crest defects and into tibial osteotomies. The contralateral defects remained untreated to evaluate possible systemic effects. The controls were treated with saline solution. Bone formation within the defect, assessed by micro-computed tomography (CT) measurement at 8 weeks, and callus formation after osteotomy were significantly reduced following direct application of Ad.BMP-2. The retardation compared to untreated control animals was additionally found at the contralateral iliac crest indicating a systemic inhibitory effect. Histological analysis confirmed the CT measurement and showed an increased number of inflammatory cells within both defects. Antibodies against the adenovirus and the transgene product were detected in all treated animals. These data show a systemic retardation of bone formation following a single local injection of Ad.BMP-2 in sheep. This finding stands in contrast to the data obtained from small animal models. Further studies are needed to determine the contribution of the immune response to these results, and whether a lower dose of Ad.BMP-2 would be advantageous.