A group of Chinese scientists have become the first to use the game-changing gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 on humans. Nature reported today that a team from Sichuan University inserted genetically modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer in October.
CRISPR allows scientists to easily edit small bits of DNA in order to remove troubling traits or alter a gene to particular specifications. The idea in the Chinese clinical trial is to use CRISPR to edit immune-system T cells, reprogramming them to destroy cancerous ones. The researchers plan to remove T cells from the blood of lung cancer patients, then delete a particular gene for a molecule called PD-1, which helps cancer spread.
The first treatment went smoothly and the patient is slated for a second round of injections.
A similar American trial led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently received the okay from a federal biosafety panel. The U.S. study, however, faced additional regulatory hurdles, and is expected to begin at the end of 2016 at the earliest.
Carl June, the scientist leading the U.S. study, told Nature he anticipates the beginning of a gene-editing race between the U.S. and China.
“I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’,” he said, “a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States.”