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Justin Atkin, bearded and bespectacled, holds three white pills. These capsules, he says, contain a cure for lactose intolerance that he has made himself. I’m watching Atkin’s YouTube video through my fingers. He is not wearing a white coat in a sterile laboratory. The Canadian, 22, sits cross-legged, sharing the floor with two louche cats. I cannot see how this ends well.
“Well, bottoms up,” Atkin says as he swigs water from a Mason jar and down go the capsules of home-grown virus, into which he has inserted genetic information coding a dairy-digesting protein his body fails to produce. The virus will, he hopes, infect his intestinal lining and set about producing the lactase enzyme, curing his painful milk-related gas. Or, I think to myself, this turns into a horror movie and Atkin’s guts fall out.
This is biohacking — submitting your body to untested procedures in a quest for physical perfection. The label encompasses simple lifestyle cheats that I tried when living in San Francisco, such as fasting to improve concentration, but it extends to more extreme self-experimentation, such as faecal transplants to boost gut bacteria and DIY genetic modification.
Atkin’s gene-editing experiment is actually a relatively mild case of self-produced, self-administered therapy. At a body hacking convention in Texas in February, one man injected himself with an experimental treatment for herpes live on stage. Another, a friend of Atkin’s, subjected himself to an untested, genetically engineered HIV treatment, and livestreamed it on Facebook.
The rush of stunts, and growing trade in kits to help you engineer your own DNA, prompted a warning from the US Food and Drug Administration late last year — and a reminder that selling such products is illegal.
This is all happening because of quantum leaps in the affordability and ease of manipulating DNA. Gene editing holds huge promise in helping tackle disease and conditions that resist existing medicines and treatments. But given how complex and sensitive the code for life is — not to mention ethical concerns about eugenics — clinical trials on people have been slow.
Atkin didn’t want to wait for someone else to solve his dairy problems. “I went to a well-renowned gastroenterologist and he asked me if I’d tried turmeric and smoking weed,” he tells me, adding that he’s tried eight different types of stomach medication. His attitude was: “The medical field is doing exactly dick for me, so I’m going to have to do something myself.”
Scientists warn that powerful DNA editing technologies could have startling unintended consequences. Mutations in DNA are what cause cancer, for example. Atkin assures me he can handle the risks. Am I wrong to be unnerved by 22-year-olds altering their own DNA, practically unsupervised, while broadcasting the methodology?
For just $159, you can legally buy a DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering kit (not specifically for human use) from The Odin, an outfit run by Josiah Zayner, a former Nasa biologist who advocates that science should be unleashed outside traditional academic settings (although one of The Odin’s advisers is George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.)
“This is the first time in the history of the Earth that humans are no longer slaves to the genetics they are born with,” wrote Zayner in 2017. He publicly injected himself with an enzyme that would delete the gene from his DNA that stops muscles over-developing. The idea was that this would make him extremely buff (it didn’t work).
Under the YouTube video portraying Atkin’s experiment, culminating in him scoffing quadruple-cheese pizza and reporting no ill effects, comments swing from congratulations to criticism. “This is how the zombie apocalypse starts cuz some dude wanted to eat cheese,” reads one.
Atkin says the only individuals who contacted him to object were “people who’ve been professors for 40 years”. He brushes off their concerns. “The world is changing. There’s access to new technology and it freaks some people out.” Count me as one of them.
Chloe Cornish is an FT reporter