Hack your body

The gym not enough to reshape your body? Some people are risking it all to hack their DNA. Jenneth Orantia reports.

Humans have a fair degree of control over their appearance. You can pump weights and get as ripped as a Hemsworth, nip and tuck your way to a Kardashian body or cover yourself with tattoos and piercings.

But what if you could go further and actually reprogram your DNA? While gene therapy has been around for a while now, a new technology called CRISPR has made it possible to edit living human cells. Heralded as a game changer, CRISPR has made gene editing easier, cheaper and more efficient.

CRISPR has resulted in biotech companies advancing to human clinical trials with gene-editing treatment for sickle cell disease and congenital blindness.

But beyond medicine is a new subculture of “biohackers” dabbling with genetic modification using products that aren’t tested, regulated or approved for safe use.

Biohacking is where an individual uses science, biology and self-experimentation to effectively upgrade their body. Some of these “biohacks” are simple changes to diet and exercise, but more experimental techniques include using stem cells to help injuries heal, taking “smart drugs” and going to infra-red saunas to get rid of toxins on a cellular level.

Biohacker Josiah Zayner made headlines last year as the first person to use CRISPR to try to change his own genes. With a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics, he injected DNA encoding into his arm to promote muscle growth.

But even he acknowledges that CRISPR experiments are dangerous. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to get hurt. Everybody is trying to one-up each other and it’s just getting more and more dangerous,” he says.

What’s the harm?

Zayner’s remarks were in response to another biohacker, Aaron Traywick, being found dead after publicly injecting himself with a self-made “cure for herpes”. His cause of death is unknown. Traywick was the CEO of Ascendance Biomedical, a company claiming to make gene-based medical treatments widely accessible, with grand ambitions to cure cancer, HIV, herpes and even ageing.

There’s no evidence that the unregulated gene treatments developed by Ascendance Biomedical work. Reports even suggest that the treatments could have the reverse effect, making a condition much worse. Dodgy gene treatments could even make irreversible changes to a person’s DNA, which could affect them and their descendants.

The International Bioethics Committee summed it up perfectly: “Interventions in the human genome should be only for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic reasons and without enacting modifications for descendants.” The alternative would “jeopardise the inherent and equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics”.

With great power comes great responsibility, and the ability to play God with our own genetics is simply too tempting an option for mere mortals to wield wisely. Let’s just stick with the healthy diet and exercise, shall we?