According to reports, the procedure involves injecting extracted immune cells with so-called “CRISPR” technology, which essentially reprograms the ways in which they handle foreign invaders. CRISPR combines a DNA-cutting enzyme with a specific molecular guide that, in essence, changes the way genes express themselves.
As reported in Nature, a team of scientists led by Lu You, an oncologist from Sichuan University in China, have already used CRISPR to “treat” a patient suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer, which is part of a larger clinical trial currently taking place at West China Hospital.
Previous trials have taken place with similar technologies, but those pushing CRISPR claim that it's simpler and more efficient than its predecessors. If eventually approved for commercial use, CRISPR would become the world's first form of genetic modification for humans, opening a Pandora's box of biotechnology that threatens to further syncretize man and machine.
You's trial received ethical approval from the hospital board back in July, and so far the results have met his expectations. Immune cells extracted from the test patient's blood were injected with CRISPR, which in effect disabled the gene codes for certain proteins including PD-1, which under normal circumstances halt's the body's immune response, allowing cancer cells to proliferate.
After the reprogramming process was complete, You and his team cultured these cells, replicated them into much larger quantities, and re-injected them back into the patient. Now they wait to see whether or not the genetically-modified (GM) genome successfully overcomes the patient's metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer.
As horrifying as this probably sounds to the casual observer who recognizes the sanctity of human life in unmodified form, those involved with the research aren't even phased by its potential consequences. Instead, they're freaking out about the possibility that China might eek out a victory over the U.S. for “progress” in this particular scientific arena.
Nature describes the whole endeavor as a “biomedical duel,” suggesting that the U.S. and China are racing to see who can unleash a new “model” of human more quickly. Rather than carefully and cautiously investigating how this type of technology could potentially harm humanity in the long run, the folks involved seem to be more concerned with attaining the bragging rights for being the first to do it.
“I think this is going to trigger 'Sputnik 2.0,' a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product,” stated Carl June, an immunotherapy specialist from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, to Nature. June has been involved in prior research on the same subject.
You, however, insists that he and his team are carefully evaluating the safety of the technology. If it passes the muster, 10 more patients will undergo the same procedure, with each receiving anywhere from two to four injections of the CRISPR-edited genes.
As for its efficiency, though, skeptics warn that creating the volume of GMO genes necessary to effectively treat patients is going to be difficult. At the current time, the entire process is laborious and lengthy, which means that scaling it commercially will continue to be a challenge.
“Unless it shows a large gain in efficiency, it will be hard to justify moving forward,” says Naiyer Rizvi from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
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