WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- The CRISPR gene editing technique is being used to create everything from new forms of life that are resistant to every known virus on Earth to vaccines for cancer, it will, and is already, revolutionising life and wellbeing
In July this year a team in China announced that they were going to trial a vaccine for cancer, yes, you read that right.
Now they’ve gone ahead. The simple injection late last week was the first of its kind – researchers used it to inject gene-edited cells into a human for the first time, using the emerging CRISPR gene-editing technique.
Fortunately though, according to the researchers, we don’t need to worry about them using the technique to create genetically enhanced humans just yet, but that said during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Uzbekistan were the first country to implement testing for genetically modified athletes and recently the world’s first designer baby was born in Mexico, so maybe this particular cat’s already out of the bag.
The Chinese team used the CRISPR gene-edited cells to switch off a single gene which they hope could end up being a possible lung cancer treatment and the attempt is the first part of an ongoing Phase I clinical trial, meaning they’re primarily testing their technique’s safety.
The patient who received the injection is one of 10 enrolled in the trial. Each of the patients who’re involved had been diagnosed with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer, meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and according to the clinical trial details, none of the 10 candidates had responded to traditional treatments and had a life expectancy of six months or less.
In short, as far as the patients are concerned this is a do or die experiment and this is where CRISPR comes in.
In the past year, the gene-editing technique which scientists are increasingly calling the “Genesis Engine,” because of its revolutionary ability to edit and replace any gene, in any organism, on the fly, has been used in trials around the world in experiments as varied as using it to help eradicate HIV as well as create new forms of virus resistant life. And it’s these cut and paste genetic engineering properties which are letting the team focus down on a single gene and fix it, tweak it, or remove it altogether that holds the key.
The team, lead by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University, received ethical approval to go ahead with the experiment from West China Hospital’s review board and while other gene-editing techniques have been tested before on human patients in China none of them are as simple or precise as CRISPR.
In this case the scientists are attempting to bolster the patients own bodily defenses to help it fight the cancer and with CRISPR, all you need is a simple snip. After drawing blood from the patient, the team targeted a specific gene in the patients T cells, a type of white blood cell that protects the body by attacking dangerous cells. Cancer spreads, in part, because cancerous cells are often ignored by T cells since they’re made by the host’s own body. The team switched off the programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1), which normally suppresses a T cell’s drive to eliminate cells with reckless abandon. The hope is that switching it off will unleash the T cells on their cancerous targets.