The first trial in humans of a gene-editing technology called CRISPR Cas9 won approval from a federal panel Tuesday, according to medical news site Stat.com.
The experiment would alter immune cells in participants to attack different forms of cancer and was proposed by University of Pennsylvania scientists. While the test still needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration, clearance by the National Institutes of Health panel is a major step forward for the innovative treatment technique. Dr. Michael Atkins, an oncologist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, told Stat that the procedure could “hopefully form the basis of new therapies” for cancer patients.
CRISPR essentially gives scientists the ability to replace genes of their choosing, allowing a potentially hazardous gene to become benign or even beneficial. Beginning with a small trial, scientists plan to test the safety and effectiveness of the method. They plan to remove cells that target outside invaders like bacteria from cancer patients and modify them to attack cancer cells instead.
The research is funded by the Parker Institute, created by Napster co-founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, who’s valued at $2.4 billion. Parker has said the research is the “Manhattan project for curing cancer with the immune system,” according to MIT Technology Review.
The institute provides support for a team of researchers from Penn and will continue the work of Dr. Carl June, a prominent authority in the field who said that due to the test’s nongovernment funding, “Frankly, we’re more nimble than the big pharmas and the big biotechs,” according to a report on Forbes.com.