A personal commentary by Tina Koutouleas
What is Biohacking?
Biohacking is anything that “hacks” i.e. improves our natural biology from microbe to human by people outside of the usual bounds of research.
What comes to mind when you hear the word biohacking? If you had asked me a week ago, I would have envisioned futuristic digital chips implanted into human arms, which monitor physiological responses in order to predict disease onset. While this kind of technology might be possible today, I have now learned that biohacking is more of a new-age ethos compared to a physical object in itself. Biohacking (which is a brand new term as per the Merriam Webster English dictionary) is defined as “biological experimentation done to improve the qualities or capabilities of living organisms especially by individuals and groups working outside a traditional medical or scientific research environment”. Seemingly, the term can be used across a large spectrum, from anything that “hacks” i.e. improves our natural biology from microbe to human by people outside of the usual bounds of research. This very quickly became something I wanted to learn more about. Therefore, I wrote this piece for me and YOU as a scientist, Bio-entrepreneur or someone who has a niggling desire to explore a bio-idea… but doesn’t know where to start.
Is there a need to Biohack?
Academic success is primarily dependant on grant writing skills and the H-index of a researcher, which if you ask any research leader, is not much to do with research in itself.
Let’s start with a bit of context around the need to biohack in society today. Medical and scientific research are usually bred in academia or industry and there is a very clear path one must take to get involved in any kind of research activity. Firstly, you begin with getting top grades through a Bachelor and Masters programme, which should convince a research group or agency to offer you a scholarship, in order to perform independent research through a Ph.D. From there, you have around a 30% chance of continuation in the academic setting as a PostDoc and an even lower 3% chance of landing a professorship (according to a new study by The center for R&D monitoring at Ghent University). Along with this lottery approach to a career in academia, another major flaw is that academic success is primarily dependant on grant writing skills and the H-index of a researcher, which if you ask any research leader, is not much to do with research in itself. The alternate route would be via big Pharma or MedTech, where one could apply their curiosity and research skills to new drug or device development. However, working in industry means visions, missions and restrictions set by shareholders, product pipelines and intellectual property battles. So where does one actually go to explore a bio-idea outside of the academic or industry settings? Well in the past, there was no such place, but today this is where biohacking spaces come into play.
Where can one Bio-hack per se?
Biohacking spaces enable like-minded people come together to satiate their curiosity, entertainment or provide a proof-of-concept for a business proposal.
Science for the people released an all-encompassing podcast detailing the capacity and need for not-for-profit biohacking spaces. Silicon Valley’s BioCurious and Brooklyn’s Genspace were highlighted as exemplary open-access lab spaces who strive to serve Bio-entrepreneurs, citizen scientists, hobbyists, activists, and students. These biohacking spaces achieve their mission by providing wet-lab equipment, office spaces and lab-skill courses for anyone who pays a small membership to be a part of the community. Through this, like-minded people come together to satiate their curiosity, entertainment or provide a proof-of-concept for a business concept. Several successful synthetic biology projects have flourished out of these open-access labs namely; 3D bio-printing, real vegan cheese, and Gowanus Canal’s invisible life. These projects extend the democratic spirit by offering access to their know-how through open access documentation or software code to anyone interested in replicating their inventions. Copenhagen city also boasts the Biologi Garagen which aim to demystify, enable, engage and democratise science and technology in their open citizen science facility. The intent, philosophy and capacity of these spaces intrigued me. Is this what the face of democracy in science looks like in the 21st century? The ability for anyone to explore her curiosity in a supportive setting removed of pretention, modern-day academic snobbery or industry pressures. I had to learn more… so I dug a little deeper.
Where Biohacking gets weird…
“Supercharge your body and upgrade your brain…Hmm”
After an obsessive amount of internet searches of self-proclaimed Biohackers, I was led very rapidly down a wild rabbit-hole (or a hare-hole if you like), by Dave Asprey the alleged “father of biohacking” who strives to live until 180 by “aging backwards”. Asprey has written five books encouraging readers to ‘upgrade’ their health and released several spin-off products such as blue light-cancelling glasses for better sleep, bulletproof coffee and opened the world’s first Biohacking Facility which promises to “train cells” more efficiently than ever before. I found myself listening to an obviously successful businessperson using marketing jargon to explain concepts of fundamental cell biology that simply did not make sense to me. Asprey promotes the use of stacking his unvalidated, expensive technologies together such as cryotherapy, light therapy and atmospheric cell training to “supercharge your body and upgrade your brain”. Hmm… suddenly, the world of biohacking got weird and so too did my YouTube video recommendations. Having used his own weight-loss journey as evidence for his lifestyle advice, Asprey’s use of the term Biohacking aligned itself more with the next fitness craze for gen Z YouTubers rather than the democratisation of science for the people. There are also ample claims of how Asprey biohacks his brain for better professional and everyday performance. Asprey repeatedly uses his personal experimental health procedures to broadcast his taking charge of his own health. Sure, if you have the money to pay a surgeon for an elective removal of stem cells from your bone marrow to inject it into your face, hair follicles and penis (seriously!) – go for it. No real harm to mankind can come from it… I suppose. However, is this really the goal of future synthetic biology? To kick-ass (as Asprey likes to say), live forever and reverse aging?
The bright side of Biohacking
“It changed my life”.
One application of Biohacking that utterly inspires me is the Argus II (Argus retinal prosthesis), a retinal implant that treats blindness – a condition I thought was not at all treatable. This technology was recently approved under the humanitarian device exemption for market launch in 2013 and already offering hope to those losing their sight from macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and other eye diseases. Argus II uses feedback mechanism with a miniature video camera, which is housed in the patient’s glasses to capture a scene. The video is sent to a small patient-worn computer, where it is processed and transformed into instructions that are sent back to the glasses via a cable. These instructions are transmitted wirelessly to an antenna in the retinal implant. “It changed my life,” says Joe Vellone, 76, who for years watched his sight gradually deteriorate from age-related macular degeneration. The quality of life that this Biohack can provide the elderly is priceless. However, the price tag for the Argus II is unfortunately not, costing patients around $150,000 USD for the device alone, never mind the cost of surgical implantation and maintenance.
To sum it up…
Combining know-how from nature and new technologies with the intention to improve human health is no doubt a worthy application of our synthetic biology resources. The down-to-earth approach to science, that biohacking spaces such as Genspace, BioCurious and Biologi Garagen provide, is widely appealing and bound to make some traction in entrepreneurial circles. The grassroots atmosphere which these spaces create is a huge plus to encouraging more citizen science. Biohacking in this sense will increase exploration of bio-ideas for commercial exploitation, collaboration with academia or just for fun. However, while these spaces provide the democratisation of science in order to facilitate new technologies (particularly in healthcare), I am skeptical about who will be able to access these advances once released to market. The price-tag associated with bio-hack health “upgrades” (such as the Argus II) is not cheap. It is my hope that innovations in synthetic biology will serve all of mankind – not just those with deep pockets and a desire to self-biohack.
About the author: Tina Koutouleas is a citizen of the world, plant lover, biologist and eternal optimist who is pumped to be a part of the REBBLS core team.
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