Chinese scientists have become the first in the world to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology on a human. They applied the innovative technique on a patient suffering from aggressive lung cancer in the hope it can one day be used to effectively combat the disease.
The team first extracted some of the patient’s immune cells and used the CRISPR technique to slice away a gene that normally prevents the cell’s ability to launch an effective immune response. The edited cells were then multiplied and placed back into the patient’s bloodstream on October 28th in the hopes they will recognize and attack the cancerous cells. In the future, such a treatment could potentially avoid traditional and more drastic measures like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.
The procedure is part of a larger clinical trial mostly focused on vetting the technology’s safety and whether it causes any adverse side effects for humans. But the patients will be monitored long-term to see if the treatment has any benefit on the cancer as well. The work is led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu.
And with China coming in first for human trials, we may end up seeing the beginning of a race with the U.S. for more research on CRISPR technology. In June, the National Institute of Health (NIH) approved research for a team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to use CRISPR to edit immune cells to attack cancer. The $250 million study funded by Sean Parker’s new cancer institute is currently awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and won’t begin until early 2017.
“I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product,” Carl June, an immunotherapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, and scientific adviser to the US trial, told Nature.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome editing tool that works the way a film editor would slice filmstrips. It’s cheaper and more accurate than previous techniques and has a wide range of possible applications for fighting various types of disease.
But for all its promise, the technology has also drawn some criticism regarding both its effectiveness and the ethics of its application. The debate flared up last year when a different group of Chinese scientists ran a CRISPR experiment on human embryos attempting to edit out a potentially fatal blood disorder. The experiment didn’t go well. Out of 86 tested, only 28 of the surviving embryos contained the replacement genetic material.
The experiment shows us just how immature the technology is today. However, it also shows us how much we need government regulations and ethical guidelines in place lest we start fiddling with the genetic makeup of embryos and walk into the territory of producing “designer babies”.