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DIY Medicine - Hacking Humanity’s Way Towards Enhanced Treatments

Written by Jonathan Gao

Edited by Razna Ahmed



The date is October 3rd, 2017 – the first of three days at SynBioBeta, a biotechnology conference in Mission Bay Conference Center, San Francisco. In between rounds of Scotch, Dr. Josiah Zayner, a former NASA researcher and a self-proclaimed DIY biohacker, holds up a syringe of CRISPR DNA that he procured himself.


“This will give me bigger muscles” he tells the onlooking crowd as he shoots the content of the syringe into his left forearm.


Dr. Zayner is not your conventional biochemist; many of his wildly ambitious efforts are rooted in experimenting with his own physical body. As someone who suffers from intestinal problems, Zayner experiments with untested fecal matter to replace his gut’s microbiota. He is also the CEO of The ODIN, an organization that sells everything from human cell cultures priced at $20, tissue experimentation courses for $350, and DIY genetic engineering kits for $2000.


Zayner quickly climbed the social media ladder for pursuing what he believes in through biohacking: to democratize the ability and the resources needed for average citizens to genetically modify themselves. Consequently, red flags regarding the ethics and safety risks behind all of his DIY genetic experiments have sprung up. In 2019, the FDA began an investigation into Zayner’s work, accusing him of practicing medicine without a license. Additionally, despite FDA warnings regarding the illegal nature of selling DIY genetic kits, Zayner continues to offer them on The ODIN.


Biohacking is a growing movement of individuals who use do-it-yourself biology to make improvements in their own lives; it pushes the boundaries of what the human body is capable of doing. Many biohackers, like Zayner, carry a Ph.D. in biology, while others amateurishly tinker away at creating garage solutions for things that the medical industry has not approved yet. Nevertheless, the common ground that unites all biohackers is a common dissatisfaction with the rate at which federal institutions give the green light on treatments.


Many biohackers are rallying together to take healthcare and medicine into their own hands, albeit to varying degrees. Frustrated with the slow progress at which a cure to Type 1 diabetes is being discovered, Dana Lewis initiated the OpenAPS community as part of the #wearenotwaiting movement to offer help to fellow diabetics who are interested in DIY solutions. In response to diabetics risking death during sleep by inefficient glucose monitoring alarms, the “artificial pancreas” was invented by Lewis and her husband to administer the correct amount of insulin and glucagon throughout the day.


In an interview, Lewis reported: “Our goal with OpenAPS was instead to help make safe and effective pancreas technology more widely available and more quickly. We decided we will best achieve this by supporting the community through an open source approach” (The Medical Futurist, 2016). Lewis isn’t interested in distributing a product, preferring to not intervene with the FDA’s commercial distribution of medical devices.


However, biohacking isn’t exclusive to a niche group of engineers with degrees or prior experience in healthcare. Biospaces are community labs that have sprung up across the United States to teach just about any ordinary citizen how to procure DIY solutions, such as 3D tissue engineering, genetic modifications, and synthetic hormones.


“Community labs were launched in a similar spirit, bringing in members of the public to learn how to perform the latest in synthetic biology: DNA sequencing, protein engineering, CRISPR techniques… ‘We reject the popular perception that science is only done in million-dollar university, government, or corporate labs’” (Talbot, 2020)


Regardless of a biohacker’s purpose in their pursuit of an enhanced, modified, or prolonged life, the philosophy that is rooted in biohacking is an impassioned desire to engineer body-transforming solutions now. The novelty and prospect of DIY medicine has the potential to dissolve the barrier separating institutionalized medicine from everyone else, and if conducted appropriately, can catalyze unprecedented enhancement of human lives.






Resources

Talbot, M. (2020, May 18). The Rogue Experiments. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/25/the-rogue-experimenters

The Medical Futurist (2016, August 16). What Is Living With An Artificial Pancreas Like? https://medicalfuturist.com/living-with-an-artificial-pancreas/




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