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Chinese scientist He Jiankui

Why gene-edited babies have been a scientific red line: ‘off-target’ risks

    PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 8:33am
    UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 8:33am

    Most of the responses to the claims by Dr He Jiankui of creating the world’s first “gene-edited” human babies miss a key fact in the gene biology of the story. The organiser of the summit at which Dr He presented his paper has made a rather cautious statement about the lack of transparency and questioned the experimental necessity of He’s work. Wisely, Wei Wensheng, a biologist from Peking University has touched on something closer to the heart of a real issue associated with this work: the “off-target risks”.

    This takes us to my missing key fact. It is well established in the science of genetics that polygenic systems operate. This means that one given gene may have a major job to do within its genome and one or more minor roles: perhaps the best example of such a polygenic system being the influence genes may have on human height.The implication of all this is that a minor change to one existing gene may well bring unwanted “off-target risks” (“What is gene editing? Who’s doing it? And is it right?”, November 29).

    While Dr He may have had the best of ethical aims in mind when he wished to help protect a baby from the influence of an undesirable gene, the holistic and integrated nature of gene expression may render the innovative efforts of Dr He unwise.

    Prof Gordon S. Maxwell, Hung Hom