Josiah Zayner, CEO of the biohacking-promoting startup The Odin, held up a syringe. “This will modify my muscle genes to give me bigger muscles,” he told a packed room at a biotech conference in San Francisco in early October.
In front of dozens of onlookers, he leaned against a table and jabbed the long needle into his left forearm. Then he took it out, wincing a little, and added, over applause and chuckles of disbelief, “I’ll let you know how it works out.”
Zayner has made headlines for pushing the boundaries of do-it-yourself genetic experimentation, whether by trying to clean up his gut by inoculating himself with a friend’s poop or brewing glow-in-the-dark beer. This time, the biohacker claims he’s the first person trying to modify his own genome with the groundbreaking gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. And he’s providing the world with the means to do it, too, by posting a “DIY Human CRISPR Guide” online and selling $20 DNA that promotes muscle growth.
But editing your DNA isn’t as simple as following step-by-step advice. Scientists say that injecting yourself with a gene for muscle growth, as Zayner’s done, won’t in fact pump up your arms. Zayner himself admits that his experiments over the last year haven’t visibly changed his body. There are safety risks, too, experts say: People could infect themselves, or induce an inflammatory reaction.
But to Zayner, whether or not the experiment actually works is besides the point. What he’s trying to demonstrate, Zayner told BuzzFeed News, is that cutting-edge biology tools like CRISPR should be available for people to do as they wish, and not be controlled by academics and pharmaceutical companies.
“I want to live in a world where people get drunk and instead of giving themselves tattoos, they’re like, ‘I’m drunk, I’m going to CRISPR myself,’” said Zayner, who has a few tattoos of his own, in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “It sounds crazy, but I think that would be a pretty interesting world to live in for sure.”
Under the Food and Drug Administration’s rules, his experimenting appears to be legal — or at least, not illegal. But it’s less clear to what extent, if any, Zayner is responsible for any harm to people who copy him. It’s a gray area that the FDA doesn’t regulate, and may become more pressing as amateur scientists disseminate their experiments, methods, and equipment online.
“Even if you are not liable by legal terms, how responsible are you?” said Eleonore Pauwels, a researcher who specializes in genomics and artificial intelligence at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank. “How do you define that in today’s bioengineering and democratized technology setting?”
Zayner’s experiment comes at a time when gene therapies — treatments that alter a patient’s genes to treat or prevent disease — are starting to make their way into mainstream health care. In August, the FDA approved a first-of-its-kind leukemia treatment that involves taking the cancer patient’s own immune cells, genetically engineering them, and putting them back in the patient’s body to strengthen their response against cancer. Another therapy that could be approved early next year would, with just one injection, replace a faulty gene and cure a rare, inherited eye disease.
Some individuals aren’t waiting for Big Pharma. In 2015, Liz Parrish, CEO of a biotech startup called BioViva, told the MIT Technology Review that in Latin America, she had received a highly experimental anti-aging gene therapy. Earlier this year, Brian Hanley, CEO of Butterfly Sciences, also told the Review that he had received DNA injections meant to stall aging.
While there are lots of different gene-editing techniques in use, according to Pauwels, Zayner may be the first self-practitioner to use CRISPR, the swift and precise technology that has transformed biology in the last few years.
Zayner, who has a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Chicago, told BuzzFeed News that he started self-experimenting with CRISPR in his garage last summer. In one case, he injected the gene for green fluorescence, also known as the gene that makes jellyfish light up. He didn’t start glowing, but he sent a chunk of his skin to a biotech company for analysis, and it confirmed that the gene had taken hold in his cells.
The Odin, Zayner’s startup, just started selling a molecule that disables a gene that inhibits muscle growth, so the end result — or at least the intended one — is bigger muscles. This kind of material is already available through other companies that sell DNA supplies. (Within the last two weeks, Zayner says, he’s sold about 10.)
But Dana Carroll, a biochemist and CRISPR expert at the University of Utah, said the experiment is unlikely to work as Zayner suggests, pointing out that the gene is most influential when muscles are being developed early in life.
“When your muscles are already developed and you’re sitting there with mature muscles, there’s not a lot you can do to make them bigger and stronger other than exercise,” he told BuzzFeed News. “So he’d be better off exercising than injecting himself.”
Carroll isn’t too worried that people who follow Zayner’s instructions and use his materials will seriously hurt themselves. “I don’t think a great deal of harm can be done,” he said. “To do real, effective genome-editing, it’s going to require a more sophisticated laboratory and more sophisticated materials than the ones he’s providing.”