Gene editing the new ‘Sputnik’ race as CRISPR technique begins clinical trial

Chinese team beat their US counterparts to the CRISPR–Cas9 clinical trial stage by months


A file photo of Sichuan University. Close to a month ago, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University injected a patient with cells containing genes that were edited using the revolutionary CRISPR–Cas9 technique. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Sichuan University. Close to a month ago, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University injected a patient with cells containing genes that were edited using the revolutionary CRISPR–Cas9 technique. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: Close to a month ago, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu injected a patient with cells containing genes that were edited using the revolutionary CRISPR–Cas9 technique. The patient, suffering from lung cancer, was taking part in a clinical trial conducted at the hospital. The nascent trials are part of the process of understanding how the cutting edge gene-editing technique can boost scientists’ ability to combat cancer and mutations, as well as genetically manipulate human germ cells.

An aspect that makes it interesting is that the Chinese team beat their US counterparts to the clinical trial stage by months. The first planned CRISPR trials at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, for which regulatory clearance was received earlier this year, are unlikely to begin until 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, a clinical researcher in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told the scientific journal Nature.

June is the scientific adviser for the planned US trial, which is being funded by The Parker Institute, created by Facebook billionaire Sean Parker to battle cancer.

In March 2017, a group at Peking University in Beijing hopes to start three clinical trials using CRISPR against bladder, prostate and renal-cell cancers. Those trials do not yet have approval or funding.

CRISPR technology involves taking a set of molecular shears, or DNA-cutting enzyme, and the guiding molecule Cas9 to cut out unwanted genes in immune cells that may help cancers to proliferate. These cells are then put back into patients in order to attack malignant tumours.

In India, the Indian Council of Medical Research, in its Specific Principles for Human Genetics and Genomics Research, has issued an explicit prohibition of germ-line genetic manipulation.

In the trial, Lu’s team plans to treat a total of ten people, who will each receive either two, three or four injections. The team also plans to watch them for beyond six months to monitor their reaction to the treatment, reported Nature.

Needless to say, researchers and scientists are excited to see CRISPR’s entry on the oncology scene and will be monitoring the Chinese and US trials closely.

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