Scientists Will Soon Begin First Human Gene-Editing CRISPR Trial

The researchers will begin enrolling lung-cancer patients in the gene-editing trial this August

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jul 22, 2016 at 1:00 PM ET

A team of Chinese researchers will conduct a clinical trial to treat lung cancer with cells modified by gene editing enzyme CRISPR, Nature News reported Thursday.

Earlier this month, the experiment, to be led by oncologist Lu You, received final approval from the review board of the West China Hospital in Chengdu.

Since 2012 when researchers first realized its capacity for gene editing, CRISPR has been at the center of heated debate among scientists and bioethicists. The tool isn’t perfect—it can, on occasion, make unintended cuts or replacements in a cell’s DNA, which could lead to severe health problems for the recipient. The biggest controversy surrounds editing the genetic code of human embryos, making changes the subjects could not consent to and which would be passed down through their DNA to their children. Another team of Chinese researchers, in Guangzhou, have already done an experiment editing the genes of (non-viable) human embryos; in December, a number of the world’s leading researchers met in Washington, D.C. to discuss the ethics behind using CRISPR on humans.

This trial will likely be much less controversial. The experiment will be conducted on patients with metastatic lung cancer for whom all other forms of treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, have failed. In this last-ditch effort to save these patients, the researchers will extract T cells, immune cells that recognize and kill cells, such as those in bacterial infections, that might be harmful to the body, and tweak their genes so that the cells can now attack cancerous cells. If the experiment works as the researchers hope, the T cells will eliminate much or all of the cancer in the patients.

This experiment is the earliest stage of a clinical trial, where researchers just determine if it is safe. In an effort to be the first to test this on humans, the researchers plan to start enrolling patients in August.