Gene-editing technology CRISPR is finally moving out laboratories and into clinical settings around the world. A university in the US has made a massive leap towards popularising this technology worldwide.
Three years after have passed since the National Institute of Health gave a research team at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) the green-light to begin trials for gene-editing technology CRISPR in humans. On 15 April, a spokesperson from the University confirmed that the trial has begun, paving the way for the technology to be used in humans more.
Researchers at UPenn have used CRISPR to treat two cancer patients so far, the spokesperson told NPR. While one of them suffers from multiple myeloma (a blood cancer related to lymphoma and leukaemia), the other has a rare form of cancer known as a sarcoma (grows in connective tissue, the cells that connect/support other kinds of tissue in the body). While both patients underwent standard cancer treatments in the past, they relapsed since.
But CRISPR isn't your average pharma drug. It's a tool that can be used to cut out or replace any length of faulty DNA with life-threating consequences. It offers the potential to cure diseases permanently, and alter short to long lengths of DNA with minimal side effects. But considering how complex the genome of humans is, it can't be said for sure that a small change won't trigger unexpected effects elsewhere. The Human Genome Project that was completed in 2003 mapped all the genes in human DNA, but not all the interconnections between them. This is something that remains a work in progress for geneticists today.
We've also learnt our lessons from how not to run wild and free with the technology as a Chinese researcher He Jiankui was recently fired and charged for doing.
"Findings from this research study will be shared at an appropriate time via medical meeting presentation or peer-reviewed publication," a spokesperson told NPR.
Considering UPenn researchers just announced the beginning of the trials, it could be months before we hear back from them with an update. But beyond the cancer study, researchers in the West are also launching other scientific efforts carefully designed at using CRISPR to treat diseases.
We could be staring in the face of a new era in health. One where some of the biggest issues plaguing healthcare today can be dismissed with a versatile and potentially safe tool.