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.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.