Who Are the Biohackers Using CRISPR Technology?

It used to be that only universities and massive pharmaceutical companies were the ones messing (OK, experimenting) with human biology. These days, however, there are many independent scientists performing experiments on their own. Some aren’t even biologists but just curious people trying to improve their physical or mental health. These folks, as you probably already know, are called biohackers.

As a matter of fact, biohacking has become a movement that, as author Rob Carlson wrote in Wired magazine in 2005, has become the “era of garage biology.” In the last ten years, we’ve seen community laboratories spring up worldwide, including Europe and, of course, silicon valley. Here, DIY biohacking regularly goes on, usually under the supervision of hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and even unemployed scientists.

One of the most intriguing things that these biohackers are experimenting with is CRISPR technology. In today’s article, we will look at what CRISPR is and what promises it holds for human biology’s we move into the 3rd decade of the 21st century. We’ll also see who is using CRISPR and why and what they have to say about their results. Enjoy.

What, Exactly, Is CRISPR?

CRISPR, at its most basic, is gene editing. More specifically, it’s a way to edit your genes to get the desired outcome, like bigger muscles or a sharper, more focused brain.

More specifically, CRISPR technology is a way to identify a specific piece of DNA and then edit that DNA to produce a new and, hopefully, improved human body. The acronym stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats

An easier way to describe CRISPR is to say that it is a DNA sequence that is repetitive. This was first identified in bacteria when they discovered that they transcribed their DNA into RNA when they caused an infection. The RNA then serves as a nuclease to cleave DNA, cut it, protect against the bacteria, and render any health problems. Scientists took this information and extrapolated it to humans, finding out that it works well in human cells. 

In short, using CRISPR technology, it may be possible for humans to change their genes at the ground level, editing them to do their bidding. 

The Implications of CRISPR Are Profound

Imagine this; you have cystic fibrosis, which is a form of mutation in human genes. It can also be passed down from parent to child, causing various health problems, including respiratory infections. With CRISPR, however, it may be possible to insert DNA and correct the mutation so that your child never has cystic fibrosis at all. Then imagine that this can be done for many other diseases and disease processes. It boggles the mind.

That’s why CRISPR is so fascinating and so intriguing for biohackers; it offers the dream of being able to change the human body at its very core. Diseases could be wiped out completely. People who have Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, cardiopulmonary disease, and more could be cured.

On a smaller, more human level, bodybuilders and other athletes could use crisper technology to improve their performance significantly. That includes stronger bones, lungs that can take in more oxygen, larger muscles, and so forth.

DIY Gene Editing Is Relatively Unregulated, At Least for the Time Being

Since it was discovered, gene editing has been a relatively unregulated space. Unlike, say, drug trials for a drug that will be released to the public, if you’re not putting anyone’s life at risk, there’s quite a bit of room to tinker around without the law getting involved. This unregulated space has, as you might imagine, open the door for many a DIY biohacker to try their hand at CRISPR technology.

Meet Josiah Zayner, CRISPR Pioneer

Seeing as CRISPR technology is relatively unregulated, it’s not surprising that some brave souls have tried it on themselves. That includes one Josiah Zayner, a business owner and part-time biohacker. In 2017 (which feels odd like a very long time ago), Zayner decided to try some DIY genome editing on his own body and, surprisingly, decided to do it with a live audience. He injected his muscle cells with a CRISPR plasmid. That plasmid, in theory, should have a mutated gene in his body called myostatin. 

Myostatin, for those not in the know, is a gene involved in the production of muscle tissue. Zayner’s goal was to prove that CRISPR worked. He hoped it would help his muscles grow larger and stronger. (He wasn’t interested in having big muscles but simply in establishing that the technology worked.)

Now, truth be told, this publicity stunt never did succeed in boosting Zayner’s strength or muscle mass. The truth is, CRISPR isn’t like something you’d see on a Saturday night horror film. You won’t see immediate changes like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Those changes will take weeks, months, or even years to appear. 

What’s more, Zayner has since come out publicly saying that he regretted his stand and that he worries other DIY gene editors may try experiments that actually harm them. In his own words, he believes that “somebody is going to end up hurt, eventually.”

Tristan Roberts, HIV patient, and CRISPR Enthusiast

Tristan Roberts is another CRISPR pioneer. Back in 2011, he was, unfortunately, found to be HIV positive. Roberts started taking all of the anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV but hated the side effects. He also worried that if he missed a dose, the virus’s immunity could build up and cause even more harm. 

In 2017, Roberts used untested, experimental gene therapy on himself, injecting it into his stomach’s fat. The liquid he injected contained plasmids, which are hoop-shaped pieces of DNA. This particular liquid contains plasmids that would, in theory, trigger the production of the N6 antibody. The reason was that N6, when tested by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), was shown to neutralize up to 98% of the HIV (at least under laboratory conditions).

Interestingly, N6 was discovered by scientists who were testing HIV patients. More specifically, they were people who had HIV but could manage the virus without drugs for one reason or another. 

It should be noted that, while still alive, Roberts had an adverse reaction to his N6 injection. 

Is It Legal To Experiment on Yourself with CRISPR Technology?

Whether or not CRISPR technology is legal is what experts call a “gray area.” The fact is, if you want to conduct a trickle clinical trial of a new drug, you have first to seek FDA approval. 

Indeed, it’s incredibly regulated and complicated to get such approval. The reason being is that the public at large needs to be protected. The FDA doesn’t want a drug company to put a drug on the market that ends up killing, maiming, or severely injuring thousands of people, as you can easily understand.

That being said, few laws tell a person can’t conduct drug trials on themself. Just ask Brian Henley, the founder of Butterfly Sciences, a DIY gene therapy company specializing in anti-aging. Henley is convinced that there is nothing illegal about trying a drug or experiment on yourself, as long as it doesn’t harm someone else. In fact, he said that exact thing to the FDA. (The whole mess is still going back and forth. Needless to say, it’s not easy dealing with the federal government in any capacity, especially one as risky and unconventional as this.)

The First Law To Regulate CRISPR Tech Was Passed in 2019

On July 30 of 2019, the first law was passed in the United States that regulates CRISPR, specifically kits sold by companies and designed to help individuals modify their own DNA.

Many believe that the law, which was acted in California by republican state senator Ling Ling Chang, was directed at Josiah Zayner. His company, The Odin, is still selling CRISPR kit design to help individuals modify their DNA. It’s believed that the law is meant to discourage others from doing the same.

The Dark Side of CRISPR Tech

Biohacking is, in most cases, legal and healthy. When your bio-hack using supplementation like vitamins, minerals, and so forth, the results (if done correctly) can be extremely helpful. There are thousands of people out there using other biohacking products daily with safe, effective results.

But CRISPR technology is a bit different. Indeed, just the thought of gene editing being performed in an unregulated atmosphere is a bit frightening. Along with wonderful and thoughtful biohackers, some criminals and psychopaths have nothing on their mind but things nefarious.

For example, CRISPR technology can be used to physically harm someone, create “designer babies,” or give an athlete an edge during competition. (Which, truth be told, isn’t nefarious so much as really poor sportsmanship.

CRISPR Holds Endless Possibilities

Putting aside the fact that it’s unregulated and could be used for evil intentions, CRISPR technology holds endless possibilities for humankind’s future. Being able to edit human genes and “tell” them to do specific things is, in a word, amazing. (Also a wee bit terrifying, truth be told.)

In Conclusion

CRISPR tech holds the promise of making nearly perfect humans, eradicating diseases and putting an end to conditions that have ravaged humans for eons. It’s still in the initial stages, though, and not something that even biohackers should be messing around with. (Of course, that’s what biohacking is all about so that last sentence is probably moot.) Hopefully, science and biohackers will be able to meet somewhere in the middle.

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