Gene editing not on the agenda as University of Hong Kong and Harvard join forces in bid to make disease detection faster, easier and smarter

  • Two institutions collaborate for first time in setting up new laboratory in Hong Kong
  • Focus will be on inventing means of improving diagnosis of diseases so treatment can start earlier
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 8:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2018, 10:52pm

The University of Hong Kong and Harvard University are setting up a laboratory in Hong Kong for the first time in an ambitious attempt to use talent from both the prestigious schools to make disease detection faster, easier and with more precision.

The two universities are joining forces in a bid to invent devices that would improve diagnosis of diseases, so patients can get treatment at an earlier stage, improving the chances of recovery.

“The goal of this collaboration is to make sure the research we do has as much impacts as we can to improve and bring better health to people,” said Dr Fawwaz Habbal, executive dean for education and research at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Our collaboration will enable the talented engineers and scientists in both universities to create significant innovative instrumentations for precision medicine, and will facilitate the design of devices and treatments that will impact health care across the world.”

The two universities are drafting a proposal to be submitted to the government later this month for a fund to run the Science Park laboratory.

Dr Paddy Chan, from HKU’s mechanical engineering department who is taking part in the project, wanted to find out if it is possible to just run tests on bodily fluid, such as saliva, to detect certain diseases so there would be no need to take a large amount of blood from a patient.

In response to the controversial gene-editing babies project by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, Professor David Weitz from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said they had no plans to conduct similar research. What HKU and Harvard intended to do was to look at how diseases, such as cancer, can be detected earlier.

HKU places 36th in Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019

“[Gene editing] was not really part of what we have imagined doing,” Weitz said on Sunday.

Last week, He claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies, prompting a group of international experts to call for an independent assessment to verify his claim that twin sisters last month were born from embryos modified to disable a gene related to HIV infection.

He’s announcement has been met with a barrage of criticism. The medical necessity of the experiment has been questioned, along with the scientist’s responsibility for the lives of the gene-edited children, and the ethics and transparency of the work.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was at the ceremony, stressed that her administration is committed to attracting world-leading research institutes to conduct collaborative research.