CRISPR-Cas9 has drawn applause for being one of the biggest technological advancements in recent history, but it also raises important ethical issues. This technology, an efficient genome editing tool, is now taking its next big step: CRISPR might be going in for human trials for its potential use in fighting cancer (namely, by altering T-cells to treat cancer cells as “foreign bodies”). Trials have been proposed to be conducted at three sites over a period of two years. The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) at the NIH gave its unanimous approval for these trials earlier this week. Now permissions from FDA and Institutional Review Boards remain before this becomes a reality.
Whether or not the studies will get that approval is uncertain. The RAC already expressed concerns about conflict of interest, and the ghosts of the trial involving Jesse Gelsinger 17 years ago at UPenn have resurfaced. There are also important questions about risks, uncertainty, and informed consent from the research participants.
The scientific community and regulators have been wary of the gravity of the implications of genome editing. When a Chinese study involving gene editing in human embryos was submitted for publication, there was a hue and cry over whether journals should accept it, given ethical concerns. Currently, there is a moratorium on altering DNA that will subsequently pass on to new generations. Even when the CRISPR technology was approved for editing human embryos in the UK, it was mandated that embryos be destroyed within fourteen days.