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24 - The Hourse has Already Bolted

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2021

Eben Kirksey
Affiliation:
Deakin University, Victoria
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Summary

Helen O’Neill's laboratory at University College London is within walking distance of the King's Cross train station. Stately edifices with domed atriums flanked by Greco-Roman columns gave way to brick buildings as I made my way toward the Institute for Women's Health. Walking down a back alleyway, I found a handful of sketchy white guys—one with a black eye—milling around. I pushed a button beside the door, and a jarring buzzer went off. Dr. O’Neill popped out in a matter of seconds and took me up to her office, a cramped boxy room with a whiteboard, a coatrack, and a bunch of greeting cards pinned up behind the desk. An old-school microscope was sitting on her desk—there in case she needed to remove a splinter, she said.

We talked in December 2019, a year after we shared brunch in Hong Kong. O’Neill was biding her time, waiting for an auspicious moment to submit her own proposal for genetic surgery in human embryos. Initially, when the news first broke from the summit, proponents of the technology were unified in their reaction to Dr. He's experiment. Everyone was sending the same message on Twitter, according to Dr. O’Neill: “This is an outrage!” “I agree, it's an outrage.” Now experts in reproductive medicine were taking small steps to begin CRISPR experiments of their own.

“I have no doubt that there will be CRISPR clinics integrated into a lot of IVF facilities,” Dr. O’Neill said. “All you need is a tiny bit of extra bench space.”

“Why is everyone so obsessed with DNA?” she asked me rhetorically. The products of twentieth-century science have already resulted in changes to the human population that will carry forward to future generations. She wondered why there has been so much public outcry about CRISPR: “Are we doing any worse than what we’ve already done to the planet with chemicals and pollution?” Industrial chemicals like BPA are found in plastic containers that store food and beverages, she said. The brains of fetuses, infants, and children can be harmed by BPA exposure, leading to changes in behavior and fertility. “Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are in every product that we have,” she added. “There's almost no going back from that.”

Type
Chapter
Information
The Mutant Project
Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans
, pp. 239 - 246
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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