Modern medicine is an amazing thing, but when we start talking about tweaking our DNA things start to sound a little scary. The potentially frightening nature of altering human DNA — we’re getting awfully close to “playing God” with this kind of stuff — delayed scientists in the US who wanted to push forward and test the CRISPR gene editing technology with humans.
In China things are a little bit different, and a new report in the Wall Street Journal reveals that not only are Chinese scientists ahead of the curve when it comes to DNA manipulation, but they already have dozens of CRISPR patients.
Doctors in China are able to forge ahead with gene editing without jumping through nearly as many hoops as are required in the United States and many other countries. Rather than years of wading through regulations and other requirements before beginning trials, doctors in China are essentially free to dabble with the technology in the hopes of using altered DNA to cure patients of all kinds of devastating diseases.
By taking cells out of a patient, modifying them, and then infusing them back into the individuals, doctors hope to be able to cure everything from HIV to cancer. The first US trials using CRISPR, being spearheaded by the University of Pennsylvania, are slated to begin soon, but scientists in China have already been using it for years. The first few dozen human trials of the technology were conducted as far back as 2015. In total, at least 86 individuals have already had their genes edited in China.
But as promising as gene editing might sound to someone with an incurable disease, the consequences of altering an individual’s DNA are still largely unclear. Beyond the ethical quandary of altering the very fabric of what makes us human, many scientists fear that while tweaking a person’s DNA could benefit them in the short term, it could cause even more devastating issues down the line.
Many argue that the regulations and red tape slowing the progress of CRISPR research is a necessary evil to ensure things don’t spin out of control. There’s plenty of fear in the scientific community that China’s relentless push forward could end badly, and perhaps hamper the world’s understanding and acceptance of gene editing for medical purposes.