If you haven’t heard of CRISPR (aka CRISPR-Cas9), brace yourself for the future: This “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” is a method to add, subtract or modify parts of a genome, thus altering DNA permanently. It could change the way we treat disease.
And China has begun a clinical trial on humans.
According to Nature, “CRISPR–Cas9 ... combines a DNA-cutting enzyme with a molecular guide that can be programmed to tell the enzyme precisely where to cut.”
Using this method, an unknown subject in Chengdu with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer (i.e., cancer that has spread from the lungs elsewhere) has had their genome modified. Researchers removed the subject’s immune cells, disabled the gene for a protein (PD-1) that allows cancer to spread, cultured and multiplied the edited cells, then re-injected the new, improved version.
This patient will be receiving a second injection of modified cells. If all goes well, the subject’s PD-1-free body will attack the cancer. Nine other patients will receive two to four treatments.
Now researchers as waiting to see the results. But the results aren’t to see whether the cancer will be cured — it’s to prove whether CRISPR is safe. (But curing cancer would be an excellent bonus.)
The United States will begin its first CRISPR clinical trial on 18 human subjects in 2017. And as with China, the first trial will confirm whether CRISPR is safe to use. However, the trial will be conducted on cancer patients.
The ramifications of CRISPR are dazzling. Scientists can change our bodies from the freakin' cellular level, people. On the plus side, it could eliminate certain diseases completely. On the downside, if our ability to fight infections is edited out, it could potentially weaponize our bodies and create a pandemic.
My mind is likening CRISPR to nuclear power: a tremendous benefit to humanity if used well; a dire threat if not.
The part of my brain that’s the rational citizen of the 21st century wants to see CRISPR regulated and monitored. The other part, the science fiction fan? I just want to know how soon I can fold animal DNA into my genome, so I can grow wings.
What would you like to do with CRISPR?