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China And The USA In A Race To Apply Gene-Editing Technique On Cancer Patients

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Chinese researchers have made scientific history at the first to have injected a person with genetically-modified cells, triggering what one doctors describes as a “Sputnik” race between the East and the West.

The term is a throwback to the world’s first artificial satellite that the Russians launched in 1957, prompting the “Space Race” where the Soviet Union and the United States fought for dominance in space flight and missions.

The team at Sichuan University, led by oncologist Lu You, injected a person with aggressive form of lung cancer with cells modified using the CRISPR-Cas9 method. It was part of a clinical experiment at the West China Hospital in Chengdu as a means of improving the ability of the immune system to fight off the cancer, the Boston Herald reports.

Lu’s team removed immune cells from the patient’s blood and used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a gene in them. The modified cells were then cultured to increase their number then injected back into the patient. Hopefully, without the harmful gene, the edited cells can effectively attack and beat the cancer, Nature says.

Dr. Carl June, an immunotherapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, says,

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.

June is the adviser on a US trial for a similar experiment, scheduled for next year. Their goal is to treat cancers using CRISPR to target three specific genes in the cells of patients.

In March next year, scientists at Peking University in Beijing are likewise hoping to begin their own clinical trials, targeting bladder, renal-cell and prostate cancers with CRISPR.

The revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique works as a kind of scissors that cuts out harmful genes behind inherited illnesses. The enzyme that modifies the DNA, called Cas9, is brought to the area it should cut using a “guide RNA” program. Cas9 can render a gene ineffective, or change its genetic data completely.

The study was published in the journal Nature.


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