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

November 15, 2016, 9:46 PM UTC
CHINA-GUANGDONG-GENE-EDITORS (CN)
GUANGZHOU, April 7, 2016-- Associate Prefessor Huang Junjiu, also a gene-function researcher, makes experiments at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, April 2, 2016. In April of 2015, biologist Huang Junjiu published the first report of a human embryo with edited genes, sparking a global debate on the ethics of such research. In his study, Huang and his team used spare embryos from fertility clinics that could not progress to a live birth, and modified the gene, responsible for a kind of blood disorder, in the embryos. To accomplish the task, they adopted a powerful technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, which can be programmed to precisely alter DNA at specific sequences. (Xinhua/Lu Hanxin via Getty Images)
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.