Aaron Traywick, the 28-year-old CEO of a small biotech company, stunned an audience when he dropped his trousers and plunged a needle full of an untested herpes “cure” into his thigh at a live-streamed conference in early 2018. Many have marked Traywick’s stunt as the moment that pulled the conversation about “biohacking” out of garages and basements and into the mainstream.
Biohacking, as self-proclaimed biohacker Dave Asprey—who you may know as that guy who told you to put butter in your coffee — defines it, is the act of using “science, biology, and self-experimentation to take control of and upgrade your body, your mind, and your life.” Or, alternatively, it’s “the art and science of becoming superhuman.”
If you’re looking for a less inspirational and more practical definition, biohacking is essentially DIY biology. People like Asprey and Traywick (who was found dead in a sensory deprivation tank just a few months after his onstage stunt), are trying to outwit death. And they’re doing it by spending bucketloads of money on medications they haven’t been prescribed, gene therapies that haven’t been approved by the FDA, and expensive gadgets like sensory deprivation tanks and cryotherapy chambers.
Asprey recently admitted to Men’s Health that he has spent at least a million dollars hacking his own biology. That includes $500,000 he spent creating a “biohacking lab” inside his home, which, according to Men’s Health, includes a cryotherapy chamber and an “atmospheric cell chamber” that makes it feel as if your body is going from the top of Mount Everest back to sea level in a matter of minutes.
Supposedly, subjecting your body to drastic atmospheric changes, super cold temperatures, and other extremes can reduce inflammation, burn mega calories, speed recovery, and make you an overall healthier human. It’s the ultimate dream of biohackers like Asprey, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Serge Faguet (who says he’s spent more than $200,000 hacking his biology), and Josiah Zayner (a biohacker who once swallowed several pills he made out of a friend’s poop in an effort to revamp his microbiome) that playing God with their bodies will not only make them healthier, but will also drastically increase their lifespans.
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Asprey has repeatedly said that he expects to live to at least 180. Faguet hasn’t been quite so specific about his potential longevity but takes 60 pills a day—including several prescription drugs he doesn’t actually need—in order to live longer. “The goal is to reduce the chances of a heart attack in the next, you know, 80 years,” he told the Guardian of his choice to take an unnecessary statin—a drug prescribed to lower cholesterol in people at risk for heart disease.
While Zayner hasn’t mentioned any age-related goals, he hopes that biohacking will lead to a world where people don’t have to deal with “pesky” things like FDA regulations in order to enhance their bodies. "I want to live in a world where people get drunk and instead of giving themselves tattoos, they’re like, 'I'm drunk, I'm going to CRISPR myself,'" he once told BuzzFeed. CRISPR is the name for a cutting-edge gene editing technology that attempts to very precisely change your DNA. Zayner has already done this to himself, using a DIY CRISPR injection to attempt to increase his muscle mass.
If it’s starting to sound like biohacking is the dangerous invention of rich, white men with an inferiority complex…well, that makes sense. The faces of the movement are overwhelmingly white, male, and loaded with enough cash that they feel comfortable throwing a few hundred thousand around in an attempt to reach a seemingly impossible goal.
But let’s dial it back for a second and remember that we’ve essentially been biohacking ourselves for centuries. Medical science doesn’t move forward without taking some crazy-sounding risks. Imagine how ridiculous the first brain surgeons must have sounded when they floated the idea that drilling into a person’s skull could keep them alive, or how questionable the doctor who first said, “Hey, let’s try ripping this person’s heart out of their chest and replacing it with the heart of that person who died an hour ago!” must have seemed.
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That’s the argument of certain biohackers, such as microbiologist Ellen Jorgensen, PhD, who said in a TED Talk that opening biotech to the public isn’t about “creating the next Frankenstein” but instead about science literacy, knowledge, and understanding. Of course, the types of biohacker projects she suggests are a far cry from the personal experiments of the likes of Asprey, Zayner, and Faguet.
Jorgensen tells the story of a biohacker who was annoyed at the “presents” a neighborhood dog was leaving on his street. To figure out which local pup was to blame, he tossed tennis balls to all the dogs, compared the DNA in their saliva to the DNA in the excrement he scooped off the sidewalk, and then confronted the dog’s owner once he had a match. Not exactly on the same level as injecting yourself with a mysterious, untested, and unregulated substance during a live-stream event and then calling it a cure for herpes.
And that’s where biohacking takes a turn toward Frankenstein. There’s no doubt that it’s dangerous for citizen scientists, many of them with no medical or biological training, to tinker with their bodies and then claim to have discovered the fountain of youth (at merely a million dollars!). Zayner—the same man who once said he hopes for a world in which drunk people can decide in their impaired state to modify their own DNA—has since gone on record stating his regrets. "There's no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt,” he told the Atlantic.
Unlike the chance that one of these extreme biohackers will live to be 180, the chance that someone will get hurt is a bet worth taking.
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