Hacking Your Own Genes: A Recipe for Disaster
Editor's Note: Our Big Moral Question this month is: "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?" It is illegal in the U.S. to develop human trials for the latter, even though some people think it should be acceptable. The most outspoken supporter recently resorted to self-experimentation using CRISPR in his own makeshift lab. But critics argue that "biohackers" like him are recklessly courting harm. LeapsMag invited a leading intellectual from the Center for Genetics and Society to share her perspective.
"I want to democratize science," says biohacker extraordinaire Josiah Zayner.
This is certainly a worthy-sounding sentiment. And it is central to the ethos of biohacking, a term that's developed a bit of sprawl. Biohacking can mean non-profit community biology labs that promote "citizen science," or clever but not necessarily safe or innocuous garage-based experiments with computers and genetics, or efforts at biological self-optimization via techniques including cybernetic implants, drug supplements, and intermittent fasting.
They appear to have given little thought to whether curiosity should be bound in any way by care for social consequence.
Against that messy background, what should we make of Zayner? The thirty-something ex-NASA scientist, who describes himself as "a global leader in the BioHacker movement," put his interpretation of democracy on display last October during a CRISPR-yourself performance at a San Francisco biotech conference. In that episode, he dramatically jabbed himself with a long needle, injecting his left forearm with a home-made gene-editing concoction that he said would disrupt his myostatin genes and bulk up his muscles.
Zayner sees himself, and is seen by some fellow biohackers, as a rebel hero: an intrepid scientific adventurer willing to risk his own well-being in the tradition of self-experimentation, eager to push the boundaries of established science in the service of forging innovative modes of discovery, ready to stand up to those stodgy bureaucrats at the FDA in the name of biohacker freedom.
To others, including some in the biohacker community, he's a publicity-seeking stunt man, perhaps deluded by touches of toxic masculinity and techno-entrepreneurial ideology, peddling snake-oil with oozing ramifications.
Zayner is hardly coy about his goals being larger than Popeye-like muscles. "I want to live in a world where people are genetically modifying themselves," he told FastCompany. "I think this is, like, literally, a new era of human beings," he mused to CBS in November. "It's gonna create a whole new species of humans."
Nor does he deign to conceal his tactics. The webpage of the company he launched to sell DIY gene-editing kits (which is advised by celebrity geneticist George Church) says that Zayner is "constantly pushing the boundaries of Science outside traditional environments." He is more explicit when performing: "Yes I am a criminal. And my crime is that of curiosity," he said last August to a biohacker audience in Oakland, which according to Gizmodo erupted in applause.
Regrettably, Zayner, along with some other biohackers and their defenders in the mainstream scientific world, appear to have given little thought to whether curiosity should be bound in any way by care for social consequence.
In December, the FDA issued a brief statement warning against using DIY kits for self-administered gene editing.
Though what's most directly at risk in Zayner's self-enhancement hack is his own safety, his bad-boy celebrity status is likely to encourage emulation. A few weeks after his San Francisco performance, 27-year-old Tristan Roberts took to Facebook Live to give himself a DIY gene modification injection to keep his HIV infection in check, because he doesn't like taking the regular medications that prevent AIDS. Whatever it was that he put into his body was provided by a company that Gizmodo describes as a "mysterious biotech firm with transhumanist leanings."
Zayner doesn't outright provide DIY gene hacks to others. But among his company's offerings are a free DIY Human CRISPR Guide and a $20 CRISPR-Cas9 plasmid that targets the human myostatin gene – the one that Zayner said he was targeting to make his muscles grow. Presumably to fend off legal problems, the product page says: "This product is not injectable or meant for direct human use" – a label as toothless as the fine print on cigarette packages that breaks the news that smoking causes cancer.
Some scientists warn that Zayner's style of biohacking carries considerable dangers. Microbiologist Brian Hanley, himself a self-experimenter who now opposes "biohacking humans," focuses on the technical difficulty of purifying what's being injected. "Screwing up can kill you from endotoxin," he says. "If you get in trouble, call me. I will do my best to instruct the physician how to save your life….But I make no guarantees you will survive."
Hanley also commented on the likely effectiveness of Zayner's effort: "Either Josiah Zayner is ignorant or he is deliberately misleading people. What he suggests cannot work as advertised."
Ensuring the safety and effectiveness of medical drugs and devices is the mandate of the US Food and Drug Administration. In December, the agency issued a brief statement warning against using DIY kits for self-administered gene editing, and saying flat out that selling them is against the law.
The stem cell field provides an unfortunate model of what can go wrong.
Zayner is dismissive of the safety risks. He asks in a Buzzfeed article whether DIY CRISPR should be considered more harmful than smoking or chemotherapy, "legal and socially acceptable activities that damage your genes." This is a strange line of argument, given the decades-long battles with the tobacco industry to raise awareness about smoking's significant harms, and since the side effects of chemotherapy are typically not undertaken by choice.
But the implications of what Zayner, Roberts, and some of their fellow biohackers are promoting ripple well beyond direct harms to individuals. Their rhetoric and vision affect the larger project of biomedicine, and the fraught relationships among drug researchers, pharmaceutical companies, clinical trial subjects, patients, and the public. Writing in Scientific American, Eleanor Pauwels of the Wilson Center, who is sympathetic to biohacking, lists the down sides:"blurred boundaries between treatments and self-experimentation, peer pressure to participate in trials, exploitation of vulnerable individuals, lack of oversight concerning quality control and risk of harm, and more."
These prospects are germane to the current state of human gene editing. After decades of dashed hopes, including deaths of research subjects, "gene therapy" may now be close to deserving the promise in its name. But with safety and efficacy still being evaluated, it's especially crucial to be honest about limitations as well as possibilities.
The stem cell field provides an unfortunate model of what can go wrong. Fifteen years ago, scientists, patient advocates, and even politicians routinely indulged in wildly over-optimistic enthusiasm about the imminence of stem cell therapies. That binge of irresponsible promotion helped create the current situation of widespread stem cell fraud: hundreds of clinics in the US alone selling unproven treatments to unsuspecting and sometimes desperate patients. Many have had their wallets lightened; some have gone blind or developed strange tumors that doctors have never before seen. The FDA is scrambling to address this still-worsening situation.
Zayner-style biohacking and promotion may also impact the ongoing controversy about whether new gene editing tools should be used in human reproduction to pre-determine the traits of future children and generations. Much of the widespread opposition to "human germline modification" is grounded in concern that it would lead to a society in which real or purported genetic advantages, marketed by fertility clinics to affluent parents, would exacerbate our already shameful levels of inequality and discrimination.
With powerful new technologies increasingly shaping the world, there's a lot riding on our capacity to democratize science. But as a society we don't yet have much practice at it.
Yet Zayner is all for it. In an interview in The Guardian, he comments, "DNA defines what a species is, and I imagine it wouldn't be too long into the future when the human species almost becomes a new species because of these modifications." He notes in a blog post, "We want to grow as a species and maybe change as a species. Whether that is curing disease or immortality or mutant powers is up to you."
This brings us back to Zayner's claim that he is working to democratize science.
The conviction that gene editing involves social and political challenges, not just technical matters, has been voiced at all points on the spectrum of perspective and uncertainty. But Zayner says there's been enough talk. "I want people to stop arguing about whether it's okay to use CRISPR or not use CRISPR….It's too late: I already made the choice for you. Argument over. Let's get on with it now. Let's use this to help people. Or to give people purple skin." (Emphasis added, in case there's any doubt about Zayner's commitment to democracy.)
With powerful new technologies increasingly shaping the world, there's a lot riding on our capacity to democratize science. But as a society we don't yet have much practice at it. In fact, we're not very sure what it would look like. It would clearly mean, as Arizona State University political scientist David Guston puts it, "considering the societal outcomes of research at least as attentively as the scientific and technological outputs." It would need broad participation and demand hard work.
The involvement of serious citizen scientists in such efforts, biohackers included, could be a very good thing. But Zayner's contributions to date have not been helpful.
[Ed. Note: Check out Zayner's perspective: "Genetic Engineering for All: The Last Great Frontier of Human Freedom." Then follow LeapsMag on social media to share your opinion.]
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a federal agency created last year called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress.
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project which was just announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of trying to reform HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume is filled with experience for her important role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she was given the Superior Public Service Medal and, just in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she was in charge of technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
As Dr. Wegrzyn told me, she’s “in the hot seat” - the pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce something in health that’s equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.