CHINESE scientists have become the first in the world to use a revolutionary new gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 on living humans.
Scientists at Sichuan University in Chengdu have injected a person with aggressive lung cancer with cells modified using the gene-splicing technology in a bid to make the patient’s immune system more effective at combating cancer cells.
It represents the first human trials of the technology with the United States expected to conduct its own cancer fighting trials next year.
CRISPR is a recently emerged technology that can be thought of as acting like a tiny pair molecular scissors that can cut and alter nucleotides which make up DNA, enabling scientists to find and modify or replace genetic defects.
The Chinese trial is expected to trigger a global race to carry out human trials of the groundbreaking medical technology throughout the world.
“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, from the University of Pennsylvania who will be involved with the US trial told the journal Nature.
CRISPR holds truly immense potential but there is also the possibility of irreparable damage if used without the proper precautions and research.
There is a plausible concern that such a technique could accidentally introduce an error into the human gene pool, thereby inadvertently creating a new disease which could be passed on for generations.
The use of CRISPR has also set off a fierce debate about the ethical implications of potentially using the cutting-edge science to pick and choose the human condition.
“The fear is that they could use these techniques to create, someway, genetically modified people. You know designer babies where parents pick and choose the traits of their babies, make them taller, stronger, smarter or something like that,” NPR reporter Rob Stein said in a recent report of a Swedish scientist using the technique to edit human embryos.
Despite the lack of understanding about the precise heritability of intelligence, it is plausible that CRISPR could be used to enhance the intellect of unborn babies, not just its physical traits.
“In my opinion, CRISPR could in principle be used to boost the expected intelligence of an embryo by a considerable amount,” James J. Lee, a researcher at University of Minnesota told Scientific American earlier this year.
While the potential for designer babies is often what makes the headlines in regards to CRISPR, its potential to fight disease is enormous — and China has taken an important step in that pursuit.