China Has Already Used CRISPR to Edit 86 People's DNA Despite Warnings
The gene-editing tool known as CRISPR can do what was long thought to be the unthinkable—actually edit human DNA. This holds the potential for seemingly limitless medical benefits, chiefly the ability to help treat gene-related diseases like cancer and diabetes. Researchers have already used the tech to cure mice of hemophilia, Lou Gehrig's disease, and Huntington's disease.
While strict laws governing human trials in America mean that domestic doctors have yet to put the tool into practice stateside, the first human CRISPR trials are set to begin here later this year. China is unburdened by such regulations, though. As a result, 86 people have already had their genes edited, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A published "pre-print" of one new study from earlier in the month suggests that China might be jumping the gun a bit, though. The study found that the presence of those very Cas9 proteins that the system uses to slice DNA have triggered an immune response in human blood samples. This suggested that many people might be instantly immune to CRISPR-based treatments, or might develop dangerous side effects from them. "Together, this data demonstrates that there are pre-existing humoral and cell-mediated adaptive immune responses to Cas9 in humans, a factor which must be taken into account as the CRISPR-Cas9 system moves forward into clinical trials," says the study's abstract.
In China's widely publicized 2015 trials, however, 36 patients suffering from kidney, lung, liver, and throat cancer had cells removed from their bodies. The cells were altered with CRISPR, then infused back into their bodies to fight the diseases.
The first human CRISPR trial in the states will be conducted at the University of Pennsylvania any day now, enrolling 18 people to primarily determining whether CRISPR is safe for further human application.
Last year, scientists used CRISPR tech to genetically modify human embryos for the first time, which could potentially remove unwanted birth defects from newborns. A few years ago, scientists also used CRISPR to genetically modify malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The tech also has the potential to be used for less than scientific purposes, like when it modified dogs to produce super-lean, "designer" beagles.
The lack of international regulations on the CRISPR tech has left some in the scientific community noticeably worried, too. In 2015, a group of leading biologists called for a worldwide prohibition on human use this then-new genome-editing technique over concerns that it could alter human DNA in an inheritable way. "You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue," former president of CalTech David Baltimore said at the time.