China will become the first country to inject modified cells on humans using the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. A team of researchers will use the genome-editing technology to treat selected patients with non-small cell lung cancer.

CRISPR is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” This genetic tool serves to edit specific parts of the genome by modifying the DNA sequence, according to Yourgenome organization. A team led by Lu You, an oncologist at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu, will edit genes in immune cells to attack tumors. First clinical tests are expected to take place in August. Directors at the hospital approved the procedure on July 6.

Edited cells will be equipped to prevent attacks on healthy cells. Image credit: Broad Institute.

The team will only treat patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, who have already undergone chemotherapy and have not obtained any benefit yet. Lu said that his team is experienced in treating cancer patients.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The latter estimates that there would be 224,390 new cases of lung cancer in the country by the end of 2016.

“Treatment options are very limited. This technique is of great promise in bringing benefits to patients, especially the cancer patients whom we treat every day. I hope we are the first, and more importantly, I hope we can get positive data from the trial,” Lu told Nature Journal.

Researchers will edit immune cells from patients and then will proceed to edit them using CRISPR-Cas9. The latter allows researchers to edit “specific genetic sequences on a chromosome,” said Nature Journal.

Cells will be modified in a laboratory and re-introduced into the bloodstream of the patients. Edited cells will be equipped to prevent attacks on healthy cells. Researchers told Nature that this method would be more efficient than antibodies.

When is the U.S. going to conduct human trials using CRISPR?

Researchers in the United States are also planning to conduct human trials using CRISPR, which is currently the simplest and most precise method to alter genetics. The Broad Institute in Cambridge is i currently working with CRISPR-Cas9 to edit RNA instead of DNA.

Carl June, a researcher in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has conducted tests on patients with HIV using a similar gene-editing tool. He is currently helping a team that hopes to use CRISPR-Cas9 on patients with cancer, as reported Nature journal.

An advisory panel at the U.S. National Institutes of Health gave a green light to the project last month. Researchers will be carrying out the first clinical trials in December if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the tests.

June told Nature that trials to be conducted in China are an exciting step forward. He added that the Asian country “places a high priority on biomedical research.” Researchers in China have already used the gene-editing tool on human embryos and monkeys.

Source: Nature Journal