The first human trial of cells that have been tweaked by the genome-editing technique CRISPR will begin in China in August, Nature reports. The group will take white blood cells, which are part of the immune system, from people with a type of lung cancer and edit them using the CRISPR technology so they hunt cancer. Then, the lab-altered cells will be infused back into the patients.
The approach is similar to another trial in the US, which will test edited immune cells in several kinds of cancer. Trials with modified white blood cells, called T cells, have been run before. But scientists haven't used the CRISPR technique to make the edits, relying instead on a virus to insert the sequences into the cells' DNA. CRISPR, which is essentially a genetic copy-and-paste tool — makes modifying the cells at certain spots easier. That means the scientists can make the cells grow and multiply more rapidly, in addition to inserting instructions to kill cancer on sight.
In June, an advisory panel approved the US trial, though the research, requires two other approvals before it can begin. That research is led by Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania. Both the US Food and Drug Administration and the university have yet to sign off. The researchers say the trials could start by December, Nature reports.
The Chinese research is led by Lu You, at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital, The patients in the trial are the sickest of the sick: people with non-small cell lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body who have failed other treatments. The trial is small and meant to determine safety and will begin with just one patient before expanding to 30, Nature reports. The researchers plan to test three doses of the altered T cells on patients and watch them closely to see how they respond.
Some object to the use of CRISPR to alter human genes; the technology remains an ethical gray area because it's so new that no one knows what its consequences might be. For that reason, John Holdren of the White House Office of Science said last year that changes to the genes that could be passed down to offspring shouldn't yet be explored. But these T cells aren't that kind of alteration, so the only person who should feel their effects is the one being treated for cancer.