Josiah Zayner, an ex-NASA biochemist, founder of The Odin, and PHD graduate from the University of Chicago, has become the focus of the scientific community over his recent biohacking endeavors. Since early 2017 Zayner has been attempting the removal of the myostatin gene to improve muscle growth, by using CRISPR. Zayner received praise and criticism for his experiment, but his goal is not to be controversial, he just wants to make it easier for people to control their genes. Zayner’s story, as presented by IFLS and other news social media sources, is never accompanied by an evaluation of his risk assessment, experimental design, or the goal of his activism. Without addressing lab practices, the media encourages and promotes dangerous lab practices.
Josiah Zayner is a biohacker, someone who modifies or experiments on their own genes outside of ethical and legal channels, but breaking the rules for progress is nothing new. One of the first versions of the smallpox vaccine was attempted by Benjamin Jesty in 1774. His experimental process was met with criticism and disbelief by the scientific and local community, and resulted in dozens of deaths and amputations, however, without his work we wouldn’t have the modern vaccine. In the 1950’s, researchers from Massachusetts conducted the first oral contraceptive tests in Puerto Rico as “fertility trials” because it was illegal to create contraceptive drugs. Over 1500 women were involved in the trial, and only three reported deaths were linked to the drugs. This might seem like a great achievement, but these trials were some of the least ethical studies ever performed, as the women often didn’t speak English and weren’t properly informed about the side effects. The lessons learned from Jesty’s experiments and others have lead scientists and governments to build a framework that allows for imaginative and risky experiments when the outcome is great, however Zayner’s experiments have no potential benefit to himself or to others. Not having a good reason for a dangerous experiment should lead any researcher to question his methods.
Zayner’s experimental process is poorly represented in most articles. Previous research has shown that myostatin limits muscle growth, therefore Zayner plans to turn the myostatin gene off by using CRISPR. The CRISPR-Cas9 system was introduced in 2012, and quickly became the focus of many researchers for its potential in treating disease. CRISPR is a bacterial defense protein that works by identifying a target template of DNA, or RNA, and cutting it at a precise location. Modifying CRISPR allows researchers the ability to remove a chunk of DNA and replace it with another. This time last year, when Zayner would have performed his trials, an Invitrogen webinar for CRISPR, indicated that with current technology 20-40% of all cuts would be off-targets. If CRISPR cuts a wrong gene, or performs a DNA insertion in the wrong location, it can lead to the development of cancer. Zayner goes through his experimental design on his blog, Science, Art, Beauty, and indicates that he only intended to use knockout methods to eliminate the myostatin gene, not replace it, which lowers the risk by avoiding unwanted DNA insertions. He also makes a point of calculating his risk factor for developing cancer by single point knockout, indicating that there is only a 0.001% creating an undesired mutation, and that the cell regulatory systems would likely repair the damage. Even though Zayner estimates the risks involved with CRISPR are low, most scientists would consider it reckless to play with genetic tools when official human trials only started last year in China, and are expected to begin this year for North America and Europe.
So with nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, why would Zayner undergo a personal CRISPR experiment? Zayner repeats in interviews with The Atlantic and CBC, acknowledging that CRISPR is in development, but that he wants to speed up the process. CRISPR has been held up in a legal patent debate since its arrival in 2012, slowing the technological progression. Even if CRISPR technology was to be fast tracked, a proper three phase trial could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and still take ten to twenty years before being available to public. The unfortunate truth about drug development is that it is a long, onerous, and very expensive process. Only in rare cases are promising drugs accelerated and even then, they run a high risk of not reaching the market for flawed or dangerous human trials. Zayner’s ultimate goal is really to ensure that gene editing techniques like CRISPR aren’t subject to such strict regulation that the technology could never be used.
Modifying your own genes is dangerous, but compared to some of humanity’s previous studies, Zayner’s studies so far aren’t evil. This biohacker doesn’t have a good reason for his research, but he has made steps to ensure the safety of his experiment. He does raise a good point, that medication development could use some reform and that bioengineering should have a new format of regulation built around community feedback. Even though CRISPR’s abilities will have a role in treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and many forms of cancer, it is not yet safe for use in humans. Zayner’s actions could potentially weaken lab safety practices. In Zayner’s vlogs, you can see his experiments are performed in either a dirty apartment or garage. In a recent live-stream for the company Ascendance Bio, a spokesperson attempted Zayner-like-behavior to prove the safety of their newly designed HIV medication by injecting it into his HIV negative self. Presenting unsafe techniques, will create dangerous scientists globally, and dangerous scientists will create strict regulations and slow scientific progress. Peer-review and controlled environments are essential to keeping people safe. As Canada and many other countries develop proper legislation around gene editing, we look to those with training and experience, but in their absence, we must follow best, safe practices.