Scientists in China are set to conduct the first human trials of blood cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to attack cancer cells. The team, led by the oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu, received clinical approval to carry out the controversial procedure on live patients, on July 6, according Nature.
Using a cutting-edge medical technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, or CRISPR for short, the team will edit immune cells (or T-cells) extracted from lung cancer patients in critical condition. CRISPR uses an enzyme to snip chromosomes and genetically program T-cells to attack cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone, according to Nature. It will also augment their reproductive rates and offensive capabilities.
These gene-edited cells will then be multiplied in a lab and re-injected into the patient’s bloodstream, from where they will hopefully circulate and eviscerate cancer cells.
The University of Pennsylvania also received approval from the National Institutes of Health to use this procedure earlier this year, but it appears that the Chinese team will beat them to the chase.
CRISPR is not without controversy. Gene-editing is widely viewed as ethically fraught and potentially dangerous territory with high potential for abuse, and rightly so, as dystopian sci-fi thrillers such as Gattaca attest. While early test cases are ethically limited to terminally-ill cancer patients who have exhausted all other options and whose last resort is the procedure, another concern that Nature raises is that the technique may incur unforeseen harmful side effects.