BY TOM IRELAND
Josiah Zayner, 36, recently made headlines by becoming the first person to use the revolutionary gene-editing tool Crispr to try to change their own genes. Part way through a talk on genetic engineering, Zayner pulled out a syringe apparently containing DNA and other chemicals designed to trigger a genetic change in his cells associated with dramatically increased muscle mass. He injected the DIY gene therapy into his left arm, live-streaming the procedure on the internet.
The former Nasa biochemist, based in California, has become a leading figure in the growing “biohacker” movement, which involves loose collectives of scientists, engineers, artists, designers, and activists experimenting with biotechnology outside of conventional institutions and laboratories.
Despite warnings from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that selling gene therapy products without regulatory approval is illegal, Zayner sells kits that allow anyone to get started with basic genetic engineering techniques, and has published a free guide for others who want to take it further and experiment on themselves.
Was administering a dose of Crispr on yourself an experiment, or a stunt to show what amateur scientists/biohackers can do?
Both. The technical feasibility of what I did is not under question – researchers have done this many times, in all sorts of animals. But there’s a barrier – people are afraid of it, and just talk about the possibilities in humans. I wanted to break that down, to say “Hey look, the tools are inexpensive, and somebody with a bit of knowledge can actually go through with these experiments”.
I chose to start with the gene for myostatin [a protein that regulates muscle growth], because it has been extensively studied, and it produces an obvious change if it has worked.
So, how is your arm looking?
In similar experiments with animals, you only start to see results after four to six months of treatment. I would expect that the DNA in some of the cells of my arm has changed, but I am still working on developing assays [tests] to try and detect that. As to whether the actual size of the muscle changes, I’m more sceptical.
Changing the way one gene behaves can have a huge number of knock-on effects on the way other genes are regulated or expressed. Do you really know what you’re doing?
It’s a good question. These things are complicated, and obviously with things like this there are lots of unknowns. I look at what the possible negative outcomes are and ask: “Are those risks insignificant enough that I’m willing to undertake this experiment?” Based on the data I read, for a local injection the answer was yes. A treatment that blocks myostatin throughout the whole body? That would be much more hazardous – you would be messing with the muscles of your heart.
You support the idea of people attempting gene therapy and other experimental procedures on themselves. What’s wrong with the existing system, where treatments are thoroughly tested by professionals before being approved for use?
If we’re going to do these experiments you have to balance two things: how many people can possibly die from testing their own products or making them available prematurely, versus how many people have genetic disorders and are just dying because they don’t have access to them. I think there’s a huge imbalance, where we’re overprotective of hurting people instead of offering a chance to millions of people who are dying right now.
As human beings we’re very big on freedoms, equality, equal rights. What’s more of an equal right than being able to control what genes we have? I think people should be able to choose that. I’m not saying anything I can do can help treat people, but treating things genetically is the ultimate medicine.
I grew up in the 90s with the computer hacker movement, the development of the internet – the whole open-source movement was amazing. Who created Linux, the most used operating system ever? Not students from Harvard or Cambridge, but Linus Torvalds, a student in Finland working in his apartment.
I don’t think for a second I’m going to be the mastermind behind a great biotech revolution, but I think there’s some brilliant person waiting to be discovered out there that could be. Continue Reading →