Shortly thereafter, the National Institutes of Health established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee to review and make recommendations on any research studies that involved using techniques like CRISPR on humans.
Although many scientists felt that taking a more conservative approach was important, it slowed progress. Meanwhile, researchers in China forged on.
In this latest advance, Dr. Lu and his team removed immune cells from a patient's blood. They used the CRISPR/Cas9 technique to disable a gene responsible for producing a protein, PD-1, that stops a cell from having an immune response. Cancer cells use the lack of an immune response to their advantage in order to grow and spread.
Lu and his team cultured cells with the modified genes in order to grow more and then injected them into the patient. The hope is that without the ability to produce a protein that stops an immune response, the cells could launch an effective attack against the cancer.
This is the first time that genes edited with the CRISPR/Cas9 technique have been injected into a human. Researchers in the United States want to be next.
"I think this is going to trigger 'Sputnik 2.0', a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product," Carl June, who specializes in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and led one of the earlier studies, told Nature.
At the moment, the only clinical study in the United States to get the green light from the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee is one built around research developed in June's lab at UPenn. June and his colleagues used CRISPR/Cas-9 to genetically modify immune cells, known as T cells, to treat leukemia and other cancers.
Although the research team received approval in June, 2016, they also need approval from their own institutions as well as from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In China, Lu says that his team is monitoring the cancer patient, who is scheduled for a second injection. Ten other patients are scheduled to also receive similar treatments.
Whether it works or not is still up in the air.