It might have been the US who developed CRISPR-Cas9, but it’s China who’s now leading the way with this revolutionary gene-editing tool.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports that China has used CRISPR on at least 86 people since 2015 at Hangzhou Cancer Hospital under Dr Wu Shixiu. So far, it’s been used to treat all manner of patients with HIV, B-cell leukemia, and cancers of the kidney, lung, liver, throat, and stomach.
CRISPR, simply put, uses a modified virus to "cut and paste” DNA to edit genes with unbelievable precision and speed. It’s also surprisingly low cost. So far, non-human trials have shown it could be used to fight against HIV, cancer, blood disorders, and – well – who knows what else.
Meanwhile, in the US, there still haven't been any CRISPR trials on humans. Part of China’s quick turnaround has been the lack of hurdles blocking Dr Wu. To carry out the trials he doesn’t need the national regulators’ approval, he simply has to ask his hospital's review board.
“China shouldn’t have been the first one to do it, but there are fewer restrictions,” Dr Wu told the WSJ.
The US is planning CRISPR trials on cancer patients that could “begin at any time” soon, according to MIT Technology Review. However, the process of receiving the official approval has been slow. This is namely because of the understandable apprehension surrounding the safety of CRISPR. For one, there could be all manner of unintentional and irreversible long-term effects on patients.
Indeed, China’s feats have been impressive, but not flawless. According to the WSJ, there have been at least 15 deaths of patients involved in the trials, around half of which were directly related to the gene therapy itself.
To say China is undergoing a scientific revolution at the moment is no exaggeration. As of 2018, it has become the world’s biggest publisher of scientific articles, overtaking the US for the very first time. The country has also started building wind and solar farms like there's no tomorrow, built the world’s largest telescope, and is set to spend more than the US on scientific projects by 2019.
Make no mistake about it, there seems to be very little stopping China when it comes to science and technology.