China Breaks Ground with World’s First CRISPR Clinical Trials
Similar to artificial intelligence and robotics, gene editing is an area of technology that has potential to make or break us as a species. So far, China sets the example that CRISPR DNA-altering technology can produce beneficial and revolutionary results.
This technology is a touchy subject — and rightfully so.
Like stem cell research, a lot of the push-back against this technological advancement comes from devout Christians. Of course, no one is saying religious folks have to edit their babies’ DNA. But this is a shame because you could make plenty of arguments against gene editing without denying progress.
Take artificial intelligence for example. To quote Stephan Hawking in honor of his passing, “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
The technology itself isn’t the problem: who’s using it and what they’re doing with it is the real concern. Editing an entire nation’s human genome to create a pure race would fall into the bad category.
China Tests CRISPR “Gene Editing” Technology to Cure Cancer
This technology, CRISPR-Cas9, focuses on a specific protein associated with the body’s immune system. Doctors locate the damaged protein or genes, remove them, and replace them with healthy alternatives.
China is conducting clinical trials right now at a cancer hospital. All patients have terminal esophageal cancer. They already went through radiation, chemotherapy, and other treatments with no luck. These clinical trials are their only option left.
This makes China the first country in the world to test CRISPR technology on actual living people.
How does it work?
Diving a little deeper… Doctors take blood samples and use the CRISPR-Cas9 technology to isolate a specific part of the DNA. This editing tells the immune system to fight the malignant cancer cells. They then place the blood back into the patient’s body and wait for the immune system to do its work.
Sputnik spoke to the hospital’s deputy chief physician Wu Shixiu. He said that so far, patients show a 40% success rate. Dr. Wu said although he’s only used the technology on a small number of people, it appears much safer than traditional chemotherapy.
“So far, 21 patients have participated in the trials. The efficiency was about 40 percent. One person has lived after the experiment for almost a year now. We started the procedure in March last year, he’s still alive, after 11 months. All patients suffered from esophageal cancer, they all had previously undergone chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, so all the participants in the trials are patients who have already tried all other methods of treatment. In general, the situation is favorable. If it wasn’t for this experiment, they couldn’t be helped by any other forms of treatment.”
Dr. Wu also said that while CRISPR-Cas9 seems effective, more studies and trials are needed to figure out the full effects and range of possibilities.
Full Range of Possibilities
Gene editing can often pose a big risk. It’s hard to edit just a small part of your DNA without changing something else, too. In mice, this usually results in undesired mutations. But like Dr. Wu says, these terminally ill patients signed up voluntarily and had nothing left to lose.
Dabbling in CRISPR technology is nothing new. The United States unveiled this method in 2012. In fact, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced in December an investment of $65 million into future gene editing programs. This is the same agency creating mosquito drones and testing weather control. (I’m not Alex Jones, they really tried it — and probably failed — to implement it.)
Scientists at Stanford University now turn their gene editing focus to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Unfortunately, lack of funding makes large-scale clinical trials unlikely at this point. Researchers in Canada are also taking aim at the dreaded HIV virus.
With more research, trials, and funding, CRISPR could potentially eradicate a broad range of life-threatening diseases from cancer to cystic fibrosis and much more.