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A celebrity biohacker who sells DIY gene-editing kits is under investigation

Josiah Zayner, who once injected himself with CRISPR DNA, is accused of practicing medicine without a license.

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Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

In 2017, Josiah Zayner injected himself with DNA from the gene-editing technology CRISPR at a biotech conference, live-streaming the experiment. It was the highest-profile stunt for the biohacking celebrity, who had developed a following among fellow biohackers — people who experiment on their own bodies outside of traditional labs with the hope of boosting their physical and cognitive performance.

Some of those followers became his customers. Zayner runs a company called the Odin out of his garage in Oakland, California, selling biohacking supplies ranging from $20 DNA to a $1,849 do-it-yourself genetic engineering kit.

Now it seems his stunts have caught up with him: He’s under investigation, accused of practicing medicine without a license. In a May 8 letter, which Zayner posted on social media, health officials from California’s Department of Consumer Affairs asked him to come discuss a complaint filed against him and bring along a lawyer if he wants one present.

It’s a sign that the law is starting to reckon with biohacking, a group of activities for which there aren’t yet clear regulations, but which could be dangerous if amateurs try to follow Zayner’s lead and tinker with their genes at home.

This isn’t a far-off risk. High-profile practitioners like Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey are making biohacking into an increasingly popular lifestyle. The underlying philosophy is that we don’t need to accept our bodies’ shortcomings — we can engineer our way past them using a range of high- and low-tech solutions. While some of the “hacks” are probably benign, like Dorsey’s penchant for drinking “salt juice” each morning, others are scientifically untested experiments that could cause harm.

Biohacking, explained

Biohackers talk about “optimizing” and “upgrading” their minds and bodies, and they’ve got many ways of trying to do that. Some are techniques that people have been using free of cost for centuries, like Vipassana meditation and intermittent fasting.

Then there’s cryotherapy (purposely making yourself cold), neurofeedback (training yourself to regulate your brainwaves), near-infrared saunas (they supposedly help you escape stress from electromagnetic transmissions), and virtual float tanks (they’re meant to induce a meditative state through sensory deprivation). Some people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on these treatments.

They may also buy wearable devices to track their sleep patterns or implant devices to monitor their glucose levels subcutaneously. The more data you have on your body’s mechanical functions, the more you can optimize the machine that is you — or so the thinking goes.

Some biohackers believe that by leveraging technology, they’ll be able to live longer but stay younger — or even avoid death entirely. As millionaire Serge Faguet, who plans to live forever, put it: “People here [in Silicon Valley] have a technical mindset, so they think of everything as an engineering problem. A lot of people who are not of a technical mindset assume that, ‘Hey, people have always been dying,’ but I think there’s going to be a greater level of awareness once results start to happen.”

Josiah Zayner, explained

At first glance, Zayner comes off as an attention-hungry stuntman. His exploits include giving himself a fecal transplant in a hotel room (he invited a journalist to document the procedure) and trying to genetically engineer his own skin color (he documented that effort on his blog).

But he also has a solid grounding in science. He holds a PhD in biophysics and used to work on synthetic biology at NASA.

Josiah Zayner
Josiah Zayner

In 2015, he left his NASA fellowship early because he was, in his words, “fed up with the system” and with the slow pace of scientists just “sitting on their asses.”

Zayner has also long been frustrated with what he sees as the Food and Drug Administration’s sluggishness in greenlighting all sorts of treatments. It can take 10 years for a new drug to be developed and approved in the US, and for people with serious health conditions, that wait time can feel cruelly long. That’s part of why Zayner wants to empower people to experiment on themselves.

He seemed upset to learn he was under investigation, as anyone probably would be when facing up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine. He tweeted, “I need a lawyer on retainer. People be accusing me of all types of crazy shit.” On Instagram, he wrote, “WTF!!!! … The fucked up part is that so many people are dying not because of me but because the FDA and government refuses to allow people access to cutting edge treatments or in some cases even basic healthcare. Yet I am the one threatened with jail.”

He added that he’s “never given anyone anything to inject or use, never sold any material meant to treat a disease and never claim to provide treatments or cures.”

The biohacker’s indignant tone is at odds with some of his past statements. In an interview with the Atlantic last year, he expressed regret for publicly injecting himself with CRISPR, which he admitted was an act intended to provoke. He seemed disturbed by his own celebrity: After the CRISPR incident, a cult of personality had sprung up around him, which he described as “out of control.” And he worried aloud about what biohackers would do next:

Honestly, I kind of blame myself. … What it’s turned into now, people view it as a way to get press and get publicity and get famous. And people are going to get hurt. There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually. Everybody is trying to one-up each other more and more.

Zayner acknowledged that some people contact his company “for the sole purpose of buying stuff from us to inject” and said he discourages them from doing that. But given that he’s live-streamed himself doing it and that he sells the DIY CRISPR kits necessary for others to do the same, his words of deterrence may not mean much to customers.

He sounded a self-aware note about that, saying “that’s why I feel responsible for this shit.” Yet asked whether he was going to stop selling CRISPR kits, he said no.

In his recent Instagram post, his sense that he’d been wronged (“WTF!!!!”) was quickly followed by a different sentiment: “I knew this day would come.”

This isn’t the first time he’s run into trouble. In 2016, he tussled with the FDA, which objected to him selling kits to brew glow-in-the-dark beer. And after he injected himself with CRISPR, the FDA released a notice saying the sale of DIY gene-editing kits for use on humans is against the law. Zayner disregarded the warning and continued to sell his wares.

Now that state officials have stepped in to investigate, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Existing regulations weren’t built to make sense of something like biohacking, which in some cases stretches the very limits of what it means to be a human being. As biohackers traverse this uncharted territory, it’ll be fascinating to see how the law scrambles to catch up with them.

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Listen to Reset

Josiah Zayner is a biohacker who’s famous for injecting himself with the gene-editing tool CRISPR. At a time when the technology exists for us to change (or hack) our own DNA, what are the ethics of experimenting on ourselves, and others, at home? On the launch episode of this new podcast, host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks to Zayner about how he’s thinking about human experimentation today. Plus: new efforts to come up with a code of conduct for biohackers, from legislation to self-regulation.

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