An experimental cancer treatment that alters the DNA of patients has won a key approval to proceed with its first human tests using the controversial gene-altering tool known as Crispr.
Scientist from the University of Pennsylvania want to edit the immune systems of 18 patients to target cancer cells more effectively. The experiment, backed by internet billionaire Sean Parker, won approval from the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), a federal ethics panel set up at the National Institutes of Health 40 years ago to review controversial experiments that change the human genome. The trial still needs final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Genetic engineering, which for decades never quite lived up to expectations, is being transformed thanks to Crispr. Scientists can use it to manipulate the genes of any living creature with unprecedented ease. Editas Medicine is hoping to begin human trials next year using Crispr to treat a rare form of blindness. The cancer trial approved on Tuesday may come sooner than many in the field had anticipated, and for a broader potential group of patients.
The experiment targets difficult-to-treat cases of multiple myeloma, sarcoma, and melanoma. The scientists will remove blood samples from patients and alter their T-cells—central to human immune response—to more effectively target and pursue cancer. The T cells will then be infused back into patients and studied for the safety and effectiveness of the technique.
This trial is just the beginning of a coming wave of new approaches to fight diseases, modify foods, and rewrite the blueprints of life itself. The study is being funded by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which was launched this year by Sean Parker, co-founder of the file-sharing computer service Napster and the first president of Facebook Inc.
Crispr is also the subject of of Bloomberg’s new animated web series Sooner Than You Think, which examines some of the biggest advances in human history that haven’t happened just yet.