Genetic Engineering For All: The Last Great Frontier of Human Freedom

Josiah Zayner in his home lab.

(Courtesy Zayner)


[Editor's Note: This op/ed appears in response to January's Big Moral Question: "Where should we draw a line, if any, between the use of gene editing for the prevention and treatment of disease, and for cosmetic enhancement?" Currently, it is illegal to develop human trials for the latter in the U.S.]

Homo sapien: a bipedal primate that is thought to be the only animal to construct a moral code. Despite the genetic differences between members of our species being less than 1 percent, we come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There is no normal for human genetics.

I believe genetic freedom is the most basic human right we all should have.

One DNA base change here, another there brings us humans with light skin, red hair and big muscles. Want to be an NBA All-Star? Your genes are by far the largest determinant of your height and well, there has never been an All-Star under 5'9". Sexual reproduction makes it so that our physical traits seem more a pinch of this and a dash of that than some precise architectural masterpiece. For the most part we have no control over whether we or our children will be the next Cristiano Ronaldo or are born with a debilitating disease--unless we use genetic engineering.

Anywhere from 64% in the US to over 82% of people in China support genetic modification of individuals to help treat diseases. I imagine that number will only increase as people become more familiar with the technology and I don't think most people need convincing that genetic modification for medical treatment is a good thing. In fact, most modern drugs are genetic regulation on a fundamental level. But cosmetic genetic modification is far more controversial with only 39% of people in the US finding it agreeable. Far fewer people support modifying the genes of babies before they are born. My question is: Where does one draw a line between cosmetic and medical genetic changes?

Modifying the genetics of individuals for medical reasons started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when scientists reprogrammed viruses so that instead of causing harm when they infected people, they changed the genetics of their cells. Much has changed and and despite the success of many gene therapy trials, people are still afraid. Perhaps because of concerns over safety, but gene therapies have been tested in over 2000 clinical trials in hundreds of thousands of people. So what are we so afraid of? I asked myself that same question in 2016 and could not find a basis for the fear and so performed the first successfully cosmetic human genetic modification by putting a jellyfish gene in my skin. The experiment was simple, the monetary cost minimal, and though my skin didn't fluoresce like a jellyfish, DNA testing showed it worked and the experiment showed me what was possible.

People are afraid because we are on the cusp of the human race changing as we know it. But isn't that change all we have been striving for?

In late 2017, I wanted to explore bigger cosmetic changes, so I did another genetic experiment on myself; I injected myself with a CRISPR/Cas9 system meant to modify myostatin, a gene responsible for muscle growth and fat loss. I didn't do it because I wanted bigger muscles but because the myostatin gene is a well-studied target that has been modified in many mammals using CRISPR. I feel a responsibility to try and push boundaries that scientists in universities and large corporations can't because of committees, regulations and social acceptability. When this cutting-edge technique was tried for the first time, it wasn't in an expensive lab and it didn't cost millions of dollars. It was done by me, prepared in my home lab, and the cost of this cosmetic treatment was under $500.

Home genetic engineering lab kits like this are sold by Zayner's company for less than $2000.

I have had many people call me crazy and worse, but they don't understand that I've undertaken these experiments with much thought and hesitation. Experimenting on oneself isn't fun; it is an unfortunate situation to be in as a Ph.D. scientist who less than two years ago was fulfilling a prestigious synthetic biology fellowship at NASA. The data points to the experiment being relatively safe, and similar experimental protocols have had success, so why wait? When so much is at stake, we need to show people what is possible so that one day we all can have genetic freedom.

Zayner's arm after attempting the first CRISPR injection showed little immune response; a small red dot in the upper left forearm can be seen at the injection site.

People are afraid because we are on the cusp of the human race changing as we know it. But isn't that change all we have been striving for yet unable to obtain? Have too much or too little hair? There is a non-gene therapy treatment for that. Want to change your appearance? The global cosmetic surgery market is over $15 billion. Tattoos, dyed hair and piercings abound. We sculpt our appearance by exercise, make-up, drugs, chemicals and invasive surgeries. We try so hard to fight against our genetics in every way except genetic modification.

Being human means freedom to be who we want to be. And at the moment, no one gets to choose their genetics. Instead, nature plays a probabilistic role in the most primitive genetic engineering experiment of sexual reproduction. This dice roll can sometimes end in tragedy. Fortunately, in my case I was born with the genetics of a healthy individual. Still, I push for everyone and though my newest genetic modification experiment is ongoing, even if it doesn't work, it is only a matter of time until it does in someone.

If you prevent someone like me from changing my genetics, where do you draw the line? Only people who can't walk can get genetic modification? Only people who can't run? Only people who are predisposed to skin cancer? Don't we all deserve a choice or to give parents better ones? I believe genetic freedom is the most basic human right we all should have. We no longer need to be slaves to genetics so let's break those bonds and embrace the change brought about by allowing human genetic engineering for all no matter the reason.

[Ed. Note: Check out the opposite perspective: "Hacking Your Own Genes: A Recipe for Disaster." Then follow LeapsMag on social media to share your opinion.]

Josiah Zayner
Dr. Josiah Zayner is a biohacker and CEO who is constantly pushing the boundaries of science outside traditional environments including human genetic engineering. After his Ph.D., he worked at NASA's Synthetic Biology program, genetically engineering bacteria to help terraform Mars. He left NASA to found The ODIN, a company that makes genetic engineering available to consumers at home. His work has been featured in Time, Scientific American, Le Monde, Businessweek, The Guardian and NPR, among many others. He enjoys whiskey and Red Bull, sometimes together.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!