The Age of Gene-editing and Crazy Biohackers

  • Shaking liquor, flushed cheeks, excited voices, and compulsive words—it's hard to imagine this happening at a science-related conference. This is at the SynBioBeta San Francisco 2017, and the talk being delivered is A Step-by-step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself with CRISPR.

    The audience questioned, "Why don't you try it yourself?" Without hesitation, the drunk speaker on stage picked up a syringe and stuck it in his forearm. What was slowly pushed into the speaker's body was a CRISPR reagent that claimed to be able to knock out the muscle growth inhibitor gene.

    This is the first person in the world to have a gene edited for himself. The offbeat speaker, Josiah Zayner, is in fact a real scientist with a Ph.D. in biophysics who once worked as a researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on habitat design for Mars colony. He resigned from NASA in 2015, however, after finding the work less innovative and believing that academic research should be more open and free.

    The CRISPR reagent that Josiah injected was originally inspired by a case report published by NEJM in 2004. According to this case report, a newborn baby with a genetic mutation that produced abnormal muscle growth was genetically sequenced and found to have an ag→a switch at nucleotide g.IVS1+5. If the muscle growth inhibitor gene could be knocked out in humans, it would be possible to treat myasthenia gravis due to myotonic dystrophy, cachexia, and other causes. The technology had not yet been tested in humans, so Josiah decided to make himself the first test subject.

    In 2016, Josiah performed a fecal microbiome transplant on himself, saying he aimed at treating gastrointestinal problems. He later said he was successful, detecting that the microbiome from the donor's stool had been transplanted into his intestines. However, in 2019 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a notice warning of the safety risks of fecal microbiome transplantation experiments as 2 adults who underwent fecal microbiome transplantation studies died.

    Also in 2016, Josiah went on record that he brewed a beer with green fluorescent protein from genetically edited yeast and subsequently sold kits to make fluorescent yeast at his own company, but according to the FDA release, the green fluorescent protein was not certified as safe for consumption.

    As the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, he became interested in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. An article in Science showed that antibodies could be produced by using a DNA vaccine encoding the SARS-COV-2 spike protein, and this project had just completed animal testing in rhesus monkeys. Josiah tested on himself in his homes as described in the paper. Although he survived, it’s still a dangerous behavior as a Russian biohacker tragically died after giving himself an untested experimental herpesvirus vaccine in 2018.

    In fact, the act of testing a drug on oneself does not violate bioethical principles. History witnessed scientists who have done this, such as Barry Marshall, who proved that H. pylori cause peptic ulcers, and Werner Forsman, who invented the cardiac catheterization. But Josiah has not only tested drugs on himself, but also started a company selling gene-editing kits, and encouraged more people to join him, which brings incalculable misinformation and risks to the public who lack scientific knowledge.

    Currently, one of the few reminders of self-gene editing is the FDA Information About Self-Administration of Gene Therapy published in 2017, which states that the official has noted that self-administered gene therapy kits are on the market, and such products are not safe. The report claimed that the sale of these products is illegal.

    In addition to safety concerns, there are ethical concerns about self-gene editing. Will people be satisfied with treating disease when the technology is easily accessible to anyone? Will the scope of gene editing extend to changing the color of skin and pupils, increasing height, improving intelligence, etc.? Does this mean that the richest people will have the most perfect physical strength, intelligence, and appearance?

    What’s worse, germline gene editing may pose unpredictable risks to the human gene pool. The biohacker community, represented by Josiah, is repeatedly reminding that the more refined legal regulation of gene editing technology is in urgent need.