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China Has Launched the First-Ever CRISPR Gene-Editing Trial in Humans

A Chinese scientist in Guangzhou examining CRISPR gene editing.Xinhua News Agency Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

In a landmark for genomic research, a team of Chinese scientists has injected cells modified with the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology into a patient. It’s the first known time the technique has actually been deployed in a human.

Researchers from the Sichuan University in Chengdu inserted the re-engineered cells into a lung cancer patient participating in a clinical trial at the West China Hospital on October 28th, according to Nature. The team is being led by oncologist Dr. Lu You.

Cancer-focused CRISPR technology involves taking a set of molecular shears and the guiding molecule Cas9 in order to cut out unwanted genes in immune cells that may help proliferate cancers. These modified cells are then put back into patients in order to attack cancerous tumors.

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The trial was actually supposed to launch back in August but was delayed because growing and culturing the genomically edited cells took longer than originally expected. Regardless, the study has begun well ahead of the first planned American CRISPR trials, which won regulatory clearance earlier this year (and are being funded by tech billionaire Sean Parker) but are unlikely to begin until 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania.

Still, the Chinese scientists’ first-to-the-clinic victory may help fuel positive rivalries in the U.S., scientist and cancer immunotherapy expert Dr. Carl June told Nature.

“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,” he said.

The Chinese trial will be conducted on ten patients who will receive anywhere from two to four injections of modified cells, and the study will mostly focus on how safe the treatments are and whether or not they have unacceptable side effects.