The Great CRISPR Race Featured Pattern: P1044 March 2017

Author: Ivona Petrache (Send us feedback.)

Nations may find themselves in a race to advance CRISPR-Cas9 research and development.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

Research in CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR associated protein 9) gene-editing techniques is progressing rapidly. For example, researchers at Sichuan University (Chengdu, China) recently became the first to use a CRISPR-Cas9 technique in humans. The researchers took immune cells from a cancer patient's blood sample and used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable the gene that makes the cells produce PD-1—a protein that inhibits the cells' immune response to cancer. They then injected the edited cells into the patient. The researchers hope the edited cells will attack the patient's cancer. And Peking University (Beijing, China) hopes to start three clinical trials of CRISPR-Cas9 cancer treatments in 2017.

China seems likely to lead the way in CRISPR-Cas9 research because its government tends to fund genetic research and because the general public in China is relatively unconcerned about genetic engineering. In addition, China's political system enables the government to make choices that the public may dislike, and regulations tend to be guidelines rather than strict rules. In contrast, public opinion about genetic engineering is an important consideration in nations such as Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Because the democratic governments of these nations are subject to public opinion, their elected officials are unlikely to fund controversial research projects and may even restrict them.

Despite regulatory and public-opinion hurdles, novel developments in gene editing will likely emerge at a rapid pace in some countries. Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden) biologist Fredrik Lanner plans to edit genes in human embryos to learn about genes' regulation of early embryonic development. And the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) plans to lead trials of a CRISPR-Cas9 cancer treatment in humans beginning in early 2017. These research efforts may yield important insights that could drive medical advances, but they may also bring about a sort of arms race among countries. Despite the rapid advances in CRISPR-Cas9 research, scientists still do not know how effective the gene-editing techniques are in altering traits such as intelligence and physical strength and if the techniques have side effects. Very likely, many failures will occur before any major successes do. Furthermore, patent considerations could delay the commercialization of treatments.