In 2005, the Australian physician, Professor Barry Marshall, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine alongside fellow scientist, Professor Robin Warren, for their discovery of how, rather than stress, stomach ulcers were in fact most commonly caused by infection with the bacterium, Helicobacter pylori.
How did he prove these microorganisms to be the true cause of the condition? In 1984, he isolated the bacteria from one of his patients, cultured it in broth and drank it, observing the symptoms of his own infection in due course.
By experimenting on himself in this way, Marshall was able to make one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine.
There is of course no link between Marshall and Warren’s pioneering act of discovery and the kind of self-experimentation going on today. As the internet now provides access to information that in the past would be reserved for experts, there seems to be a growing community of people taking biological self-experimentation into their own hands outside of the safety of official laboratories. This is known as “biohacking.”
What is Biohacking?
Biohacking, also known as “human augmentation,” is a kind of do-it-yourself biology whereby individuals attempt to “hack” their own bodies and enhance themselves through self-experimentation at home.
In truth, biohacking is somewhat of a spectrum. It’s a health craze, but it’s also a health hazard.
Along with those at the radical end of the scale, there are also those that are simply just interested in relatively harmless wellness practices like taking supplements, drinking ginger shots and tracking their circadian rhythms.
And realistically, shouldn’t everyone have the authority to optimise their own bodies in moderation?
In theory, with professional guidance, yes; taking an interest in one’s health by making small tweaks to micronutrient intake and daily routines can bring a range of health and wellbeing benefits.
But like with anything in life, when taken to the extreme, such unchecked experiments pose a real problem; could the results of radical self-enhancement risk being used as a biological weapon?
Many claim biohacking to be nothing more than a hobby. Others, a movement to democratise science. But if we look deeper, even if you disregard the potentially dangerous downstream consequences, the desire to push the boundaries of human biology through biohacking in an attempt to inch ever closer to “superhuman” status is troubling.
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Promoting trial-and-error experimentation with complex technologies as a cheap and accessible way to find cures, fix flaws, rewire undesirable human biology, and substitute bona fide medications or therapies with homegrown treatments stands to undermine human health.
It is understandable that the frustration felt by those with life-threatening conditions may push them to take their health, and therefore their future, into their own hands, but try life-altering techniques unsupervised at home is more likely to cause severe harm than help.
Some biohackers are also delving into plant gene-editing as well, raising concerns about the risks this could pose to the environment.
What’s more, in the inevitable scenario that such experiments go wrong – or even just simply go into the wrong hands – they could even pose a significant biosecurity threat to society.
.@US_FDA warns public of dangers of #DIY #genetherapy https://t.co/XMC929IRXQ #biohacking pic.twitter.com/Oz3tlGcbas
— Nature Biotechnology (@NatureBiotech) February 6, 2018
Where’s the line between home-brew biology and biowarfare?
It may require a certain level of expertise and acumen to develop scientific methodology that actually works, but once a protocol is developed, realistically anyone with the ability to follow a recipe and enough money to buy a pipette can carry them out somewhat effectively.
It’s pretty much just moving liquids between tubes at the end of the day!
As a result of this fact, as well as research materials becoming much more affordable and accessible online these days, the past few years have seen an explosion in self-taught biohackers carrying out unchecked self-experimentation in homemade laboratories.
The Netflix documentary “Unnatural Selection” touches on the phenomenon.
But if you think about it, even if biohacking procedures can be likened to simply following the instructions in a cookbook, how often do you accidentally mess that up? We’re all guilty of over-salting in the kitchen.
However, adding a little bit too much salt to the pan is not the same as adding excess DNA into an assay; the consequences of the latter could be catastrophic for both the individual and society.
There’s a reason these techniques are reserved for experts with years of experience, and even then things go wrong.
As a result, many government executives and organisations, defence secretaries, biowarfare experts and officials at the UN have understandably expressed concerns. In the wrong hands, by either deliberate intention or mistake, they warn that biohacking experiments could quickly spiral out of control and pose a significant biosecurity risk.
The worry is that with the resources readily available, anyone (whether a mere hobbyist or in fact hostile) has access to the means and know-how required to produce genetically-modified, potentially lethal or highly infectious home-brew organisms.
Although the gene-editing capabilities of CRISPR have undoubtedly bestowed the research community with an unparalleled power to cure, treat and change the world for the better, the darker side of the technology has also opened up a pandora’s box of problems.
Modifying pathogens to make them more aggressive, transmissible or fatal, providing antibiotic or antiviral resistance, or even turning a harmless micro-organism into something lethal, are just a few of the possibilities a hostile actor has the power to do through CRISPR.
A bit like the premise of the zombie horror movie, “28 Days Later,” and its sequel “28 Weeks Later” where the genetically modified “Rage Virus” is released from a medical laboratory and begins infecting humans.
Aside from biowarfare, messing around with genetic modifications also poses wider risks to people and the planet in relation to cancer, eugenics, food and agriculture, not to mention the whole host of associated ethical, political, and environmental issues involved.
To make matters worse, there are also some scams emerging within the biohacking sphere, whereby brands are promoting bogus biohacks that claim to extend life, treat health issues and optimise wellbeing, but in reality just pose risks to both health and bank balances.
And although the worst of these biohacking activities certainly seem as though they ought to be illegal, at present there is still a concerted lack of legal framework to police them, and many biohackers ultimately go completely unchallenged and under the radar.
A symptom of a larger global issue
Some now hold the opinion that the bureaucratic red tape, funding issues and politics that govern professional scientific research, may in reality be curbing innovation and preventing breakthroughs.
One scientist in particular that is often referenced within biohacker pop culture as a muse who embodies scientific freedom is Edward Jenner; the late 18th-century microbiologist who famously infected a milkmaid with smallpox to test his hypothesis of acquired immunity and struck gold in creating the world’s first vaccine.
And where would the current pandemic-stricken world be without that medical breakthrough?
What should be kept in mind, is that this idea of progress being contingent on both empowering the individual with scientific agency and democratising research for the masses, seems to be coinciding with a present-day global climate of uncertainty.
In our world currently plagued by war, pandemic and political instability, fertile ground is readily being laid for far-right ideals, conspiracy theories and distrust to blossom.
A larger portion of society than ever before is now sceptical of political, social and economic infrastructure, and it’s no surprise that this culture of doubt has begun spilling over into public opinion on medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies.
It may therefore not be too much of a stretch to suggest that this latest biohacking craze – the gene-editing mania side of things, rather than that of vogue-esque green juices – is possibly one of the many radical symptoms of a larger global issue.
As such, perhaps finding the right balance between fueling scientific progress without bureaucratic constraint, whilst also making sure to dually mitigate the risk of unchecked scientific longtermism – a philosophy which has also surely played a part in sparking the biohacking movement – might help provide safe passage for innovation to thrive without risking the creation of a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect new information that has come to light since its original publication. The first half of the article has been revised to include additional context and clarification. The changes include removal of all individuals mentioned in relation to biohacking or self-experimentation. We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Erlenmeyer flask containing coloured beads. Featured Photo Credit: Unsplash.