Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
Imagine that the story of the world's first CRISPR babies began with a different opening scene. On a flight from London to Hong Kong a thirtythree-year-old Irish geneticist, Helen O’Neill, struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler in the seat beside her. He asked her: “If there is one thing that you want to be remembered for, what is it?” She said that she wanted to go down in history as the first scientist to usher an edited baby into the world. Like Dr. He, who was just a few months older than her, Dr. O’Neill had been hoping to make a breakthrough use of this technology. After the news from the summit, her traveling companion found her on LinkedIn and wrote: “I bet you are glad that you weren't first.”
We met for brunch in Hong Kong on a Sunday, just a week after this flight, right after the summit concluded. I was feeling groggy, almost hung over. Helen O’Neill told me that she had a laboratory set up at University College London with all of the equipment needed to genetically engineer human embryos, but she was actively reevaluating her ambitions and life goals. “I’m quite glad that I wasn't first,” she said. “I would still like to do it and do it properly. But I don't want to be under scrutiny, with people constantly wondering: What are you doing?”
O’Neill was frustrated by the haste and sloppy nature of Jiankui He's research. “It's scientists like this who ruin it for the rest of us,” she said. At the same time, she recognized that nationalistic sentiments, a mistrust of China, and even racism might have influenced how people responded to his research. She said: “If this was done in America or Europe it may have been an entirely different narrative.”
A few days earlier, when she delivered a lecture at the summit, O’Neill had talked about two British scientists who were familiar to most of the experts in the audience. When Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards created the world's first “test-tube baby” in 1978, a firestorm of controversy erupted, with the press, the pope, and prominent scientists criticizing their research. Their clinic was shut down for two years.