Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Boston — After a global controversy over a Chinese scientist’s surprise claims that he had edited the DNA of human embryos, US regulators blessed a small company’s quest to use the same genetic technology in a new medicine.

Editas Medicine said on Friday that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had accepted its application to begin the first in-human study of an experimental therapy for a rare eye disorder that uses Crispr, the same technology the Chinese researcher claims to have used to alter the genetic makeup of a pair of twin infant girls before they were born.

The trial by Editas would be the first time that a Crispr-based medicine has been studied inside of living patients in an official clinical trial anywhere in the world, the company said in a statement. A number of other biotechnology companies have therapies in development that use Crispr to treat a range of diseases.

Crispr can splice away parts of the human genetic blueprint that make people susceptible to disease or defects. Scientists have generally taken a cautious approach to using it in humans given that the long-term effects of altering a person’s genes are not well understood. When Shenzhen-based researcher He Jiankui said this week that he had used the tool to try to make the girls resistant to HIV, it caused an international scientific backlash.

Crispr has a host of applications, from genetically modifying crops to changing how basic biomedical research is conducted. The technology has captured the imagination of investors. Editas and rivals such as Intellia Therapeutics and Crispr Therapeutics have seen their shares climb despite their current lack of marketable drugs, and even though some experts believe that the therapies that use Crispr for humans are at least five years away.

Editas shares, which have risen by 90% since their February 2016 initial public offering, were up 0.8% at $30.35 at 9.37am in New York. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company said that with the FDA acceptance, it had earned a $25m milestone payment from partner Allergan.

The trio of companies leading the Crispr race in the US are using distinct approaches for gene editing. In contrast to Editas, where genetic editing takes place “in vivo,” or inside the body, Crispr Therapeutics is primarily focused on an approach using cells that have been extracted from the body. Intellia is also working on in-vivo gene editing and has yet to file for a trial approval.

Crispr Therapeutics and partner Vertex Pharmaceuticals have started enrolling patients for the first company-sponsored human trial in the US in patients with severe sickle cell disease. Crispr Therapeutics also recently enrolled the first patient in a separate study of a genetic therapy for beta-thalassemia patients in Europe.

With Tatiana Darie