Thursday, November 23, 2017

Real-life bio-hackers are trying to beat the medical establishment to cures

You can, if you are so inclined, watch Tristan Roberts inject an untested gene therapy into his own stomach fat, an event that was live-streamed on Facebook. You can also watch a live video feed of him receiving the news a few weeks later that the therapy has not worked, and the developer of the "therapy" quipping, "We didn't kill you!"
It's perhaps difficult to believe, but there are real live "bio-hackers" out there, willing to experiment on themselves. Sometimes they might do this for reasons of personal gain (some have tried to make themselves stronger, or to live longer, for example); some just want to push the development of new therapies and new drugs ahead faster than the usual glacial pace of mainstream regulated medical advances, in search of cures, and mainly in order to help others in a similar situation. Mr. Roberts' motivation was probably a combination of the two: he is 28-years old and HIV-positive, and stopped taking his anti-viral drugs a couple of years ago, partly because of the side effects, and partly because of the depressing prospect of having to take medications for the rest of his life. He is desperate for a cure. A self-confessed risk-taker, living on the fringes of mainstream society, he jumped at the chance to by-pass the medical system to take his own chances in search of a "moon-shot" cure.
The cocktail of plasmids Roberts injected himself with is designed to trigger production of the antibody N6, which in theory acts to neutralize the HIV virus, at least in lab conditions. The test was overseen by Aaron Traywick, head of a start-up company called Ascendance Biomedical. Traywick himself is not a scientist, and refers to himself as a "community organiser", although there are scientists among the team at Ascendance that developed the treatment.
Many others in the scientific community argue that these kinds of experiments are too amateurish and uncontrolled to yield meaningful results, even should they appear to work, and that the dangers of self-experimentation outweigh any benefits that might accrue. Epithets like "fringe", "risky", "frightening" and "delusional" have been directed towards them by otherwise circumspect scientist and bio-ethicists. This kind of bio-hacking is not technically illegal, although there are substantial legal grey areas around it.
After a rather alarming period in which his skin broke out in angry red bumps, and he became feverish and lost appetite, Mr. Roberts' symptoms subsided. When the blood test results came in, though (live on the internet, of course), his viral load was seen to have increased, not plummeted as had been hoped. The experiment appeared to have failed. That was the point when Traywick mumbled, " More data is necessary ...  we didn't kill you". Roberts himself limited his response to, "I'm a little bit let down ... It's hard".
Ascendance Biomedical will be trying a second attempt, with many times the number of plasmids, and Tristan Roberts will, once again, be the guinea pig. He remains confident in the process and the eventual success of the therapy, and he still refuses to take his anti-virals. In the meantime, official human trials of N6 injections will proceed as planned in early 2018. Slow, but perhaps more sure.

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