Renegade biohackers are testing COVID vaccines themselves

WWhen one thinks of scientific study, the images that come to mind usually involve studious men and women in lab coats performing painstaking research in sterile environments. These notions are not about biohackers, however, who conduct cutting edge DIY experiments – and often legally and morally questionable – on themselves and others in the name of pushing the boundaries of what is technologically possible. They are punk rock dreamers dedicated to discovering the evolutionary breakthroughs and cures of tomorrow.

Take, for example, Josiah Zayner, a former NASA scientist who made waves in 2017 when, during a live broadcast at a biotechnology conference in San Francisco, he injected himself into his arm. the CRISPR gene editing tool to increase the size of its muscles. Earlier this year, Zayner decided to help the American scientific community in its race to cure COVID-19 by personally taking a potential DNA vaccine that was first discussed in a Harvard University article. and which had only been tested on monkeys. The results were disappointing, but the attitude behind the trial was sheer biohacker rebellious daring – and is emblematic of a community that sees the coronavirus as an ideal opportunity to research, test and show the world that taking scientific action between your own hands is the key to progress.

Yet as Citizen biography suggests that the behavior of Zayner and his ilk could do more harm than good. Director Trish Dolman’s documentary (premiering October 30 on Showtime) examines this subculture through the story of Aaron Traywick, founder of Ascendance Biomedical, a team designed to create affordable and readily available treatments for variety of ailments. Traywick caught national media attention when, during a live Facebook broadcast in October 2017, his business partner Tristan Roberts injected himself with an unproven HIV cure. Traywick followed this up by pulling down his own pants and sticking with an experimental cocktail supposed to eradicate herpes at the BDYHAX 2018 conference. With long hair, a big smile, and seemingly stupendous financial resources, Traywick struck the pose of charismatic pioneer, dedicated to fostering a movement of self-improvement which did not wait for the government or the companies to face the problems of disease, degeneration. and aging.

Traywick’s own rise to fame, however, was short-lived. In April 2018, he was found dead at the age of 28, face down in a sensory deprivation tank at a Washington, DC meditation spa – an ignominious and mysterious fate for an individual who ultimately did so much. enemies that it made the headlines. .

A glance at the makeshift lab set up and managed by Traywick’s partner, Gabriel Licina, and it’s easy to see that Citizen biographyHis subjects spearhead a sort of near-science fiction future in which underground radicals concoct and disseminate artisanal techno-innovations. As evidenced by bodyhacker Russ Foxx’s demonstration of the RDIF chip he implanted in his hand – so he can activate his motorcycle and access his private safes – it’s a community of daredevils ready to go. risk their own safety for the greater good. Trouble is, there are more dangerous implications for their work than their own well-being – not to mention that some of those leading this crusade are not really trustworthy.

This was certainly the case with Traywick, whose enthusiasm influenced a legion of fellow biohackers (such as Roberts, Licina, Machiavelli Davis, and Andreas Stuermer), and looks genuine in interviews filmed shortly before his death. Citizen biography is a portrait of little-known activists bypassing official channels in pursuit of magical wonders. Traywick was at the forefront of this accusation, and it is evident that he was reckless at best and motivated by ulterior motives at worst. Consumed by finding a way to extend human life, Traywick began his journey by teaming up with his lobbyist cousin Edwina Rogers, who helped him make forays with powerful players in Washington, DC. Before long, he had created Ascendancy Biomedical, which aimed to produce open-access gene therapy platforms that could be used by independent and commercial researchers to develop disease management strategies, without FDA oversight.

Although they take their jobs seriously, most of the biohackers featured in “Citizen Bio” look like mad modern day scientists, mixing and matching genetic material … in a way more reminiscent of craft beer than Jonas Salk. .

Traywick’s ostensible goal was to discover and manufacture single-use cures for prevalent conditions – for example, Inovium, a fertility treatment that would harness its own genetic material to enable women to give birth after menopause. It is difficult to denounce these intentions, but the evidence presented here indicates that the execution of these plans was highly questionable. Although they take their jobs seriously, most of the biohackers featured in Citizen biography look like modern mad scientists, by mixing and matching genetic material – often through the use of retail CRISPR kits that allow anyone to splice and cut DNA – in a way more reminiscent of the craft beer than Jonas Salk, whose legendary polio research is cited as an inspiration. A hasty montage of historical scientific developments attempts to make these men the last in a long line of pioneers, which might be more convincing if they did not present themselves as such semi-skilled handymen.

Citizen biography begins by positioning Traywick as an enigmatic figure before exposing him, unsurprisingly, as a charlatan. Shortly after his BDYHAX hit, Traywick’s closest colleagues began to doubt his commitment to biohacking and his anti-establishment and out-of-system ethics. Their suspicions seem to have been correct; In excerpts from a 2018 Vice News interview, Licina and Roberts pointedly ask Traywick if he really supports crowdsourcing his therapies (and altruistically gives them away for free), or if he’s interested in maintaining ownership of his therapies. advances (the latter turns to be the ostensible response). Therefore, despite all the speculation about his demise (murder theories abound, as he had a lot of Big Pharma and biohacking enemies), the idea that the film leaves us with is that after taking a shameful drop in his pedestal, he committed suicide. .

Text maps placed over dark, running water (taken from recreations of Traywick’s body floating in the Sensory Deprivation Reservoir), along with interviews conducted in dimly lit rooms, generate an atmosphere of ominous threat. Such gestures are a bit harsh, but in keeping with the fact that the biohacking community is beset with dangers, thanks to the ever-present prospect that these untrained individuals, while sneaking around with genetic and biological material, accidentally (or willfully) design a biohazard weapon or pandemic grade plague. To be fair, none of this has happened – yet. But Citizen biography is more captivating when he temporarily puts aside his fascination with Traywick and focuses on the intersection of lofty goals and questionable methods that defines this little-known subculture. This is where the promise of revolution and disaster coexist, and the main shortcoming of the Dolman film is that it does not examine this tense dynamic in more depth.

As for Traywick, his own legacy – despite his fond family memories – is that of failure born of the duplicity of street vendors. “A bad actor in the community who did bad science in a terrible way” is how journalist Alex Pearlman sums it up at the start of the film, and nothing that follows significantly complicates or refutes this description appropriate.

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