Conflict of method among biohackers
Published 20 February 2018 by Ewen Chardronnet
Clash in the DIYbio community around the controversial manager of a biotech company that claims to offer DIY vaccine injection kits and other treatments for diseases such as aids or herpes.
Austin, Texas, February 4, 2018. The Bdyhax 2018 convention set itself to be an important body hacking rendezvous with a transhumanist trend. There was talk about implants of new vibrating sexual organs, MDMA or other psychedelics assisted therapies. Even the artist Stelarc was present to show his ear implanted under the skin of his forearm. The afternoon was dedicated to DIY healthcare and set the tone with an opening of Ford Fisher’s documentary Transhuman: Biohackers and Immortalists that praises the eradication of all diseases through biohacking. Various projects were presented, Mixael Laufer from Four Thieves Vinegar explained to us how to make your own medicine at home.
The highlight of the afternoon was produced by Aaron Traywick, the young 28-year-old manager of the controversial company Ascendance Biomedical, who was due to inject himself live on social networks with what he presents as a vaccine against herpes. Traywick, who has no scientific or medical training, presents the company team that developed a “vaccine” and “treatment” against herpes. Andreas Stuermer, geneticist engineer, organizer of the Ars Electronica Center Biolab in Linz Austria, was presented as the “lead scientist” of the project. Traywick then lowered his pants and injected himself in the thigh with the supposed DIY vaccine. On the pretext that the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on gene therapy are too strict and too slow, his company gave itself the mission to offer low cost DIY “treatments” faster. The team seemed convinced of the miracles that gene therapy and the genome editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 can produce. To a point where it gave the audience the impression that it was neglecting, even openly showing contempt for the basic rules of cohort and rigorous clinical trials.
Live injection of the anti-herpes DIY treatment, Bdyhax, February 2018:
It wasn’t Traywick’s first stunt. In October 2017, he had also created a buzz around another “treatment” against HIV this time, no less. One of his collaborators, Tristan Roberts, who had aids and refused tri-therapy, injected himself under the skin and live on social networks with an alleged gene therapy treatment able to stimulate the production of N6 antibodies—a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had recently shown that the latter neutralized up to 98% of HIV strains)—, with the hope of becoming “patient zero” of a revolutionary treatment. However, one month later, the Ascendance Biomedical team was in for a reality check. The injection of the miracle remedy had not functioned, the presence of strains had even increased.
A biohacker self-administers an anti-aids “treatment”, October 2017:
Josiah Zayner, aka The Odin, another media stunt specialist (we told you about him here and there), also had publicly led and broadcast on social networks, a few days before Roberts, a CRISPR-Cas9 self-injection in order to modify his genome with the objective of increasing his muscle mass.
Following both of these two high-risk experiences, the American health security authority published a release in November 2017 warning about the self-administration of gene therapies. “FDA is aware that gene therapy products intended for self-administration and “do it yourself” kits to produce gene therapies for self-administration are being made available to the public. The sale of these products is against the law. FDA is concerned about the safety risks involved. Consumers are cautioned to make sure that any gene therapy they are considering has either been approved by FDA or is being studied under appropriate regulatory oversight.”
Josiah Zayner and the “DIY Human CRISPR”, October 2017:
Josiah Zayner at first expressed his surprise on social networks of the rapidity of the FDA reaction, then claimed he had indeed carried out all the verifications and appropriate scientific studies.
Miracle remedy or charlatanism?
On February 5, in the night that followed Traywick’s injection in Austin, Josiah Zayner came up with a communiqué criticizing Ascendance Bio: “The idea that any scientist, biohacker or not, has created a cure for a disease with no testing and no data is more ridiculous than believing jet fuel melts steel beams. Ascendance Bio are not legit in any measure. They have created no cures. In my opinion they don’t deserve the moniker of biohacker or scientist. (…) Unfortunately, it has reached a point where they are gravely misleading people and are making the biohacker community look like idiot scammers. They seem more interested in attention then access. They claim transparency but have provided no data, information, DNA sequences or materials to third parties for testing and verification. And lastly, they are breaking the number one rule of biohacking, Never put another person’s life at risk.”
Zaner even apologizes: “Looking at my actions in the past, which unfortunately did include a public injection in a semi-ridiculous manner, I want to apologize, in that I could have inspired people to think I was doing things on a whim when I was not. My goal is and has always been to make biotechnology accessible and sometimes that means cutting out a lot of the normal jargon or unnecessary ceremony and ritual so people can understand what is going on. (…) I always consult with other medical and scientific experts to see if I a missing anything and always encourage others to do the same. Science is sometimes more about figuring out how not to do things wrong then how to do them correctly. As far as we know Ascendance has never done any preliminary experiments. They have never provided preliminary data and yet still every therapy they try is claimed to be a cure.”
And the story becomes viral
The injection of the “remedy” against herpes becomes viral in the press and on social networks and sparks controversy in the community on the scientific whys and wherefores of the operation. The idea for the treatment came from Andreas Stuermer, the 25-year-old biohacker and bio-artist from the Ars Electronica Center. The young Austrian biohacker had already attracted attention in DIY groups with his enthusiastic and untimely declarations calling for “CRISPR for all” and continuously complaining about the legal restrictions in this field. Stuermer had approached Ascendance to attempt to produce a vaccine against herpes, having come across a particularly intriguing scientific article. It seemed rather easy. To enter cells in the human body, herpes relies on a protein, “glycoprotein D”. It would just be about removing the protein from the virus and then the virus could no longer spread. The disarmed virus could thus become the basis for a vaccine, according to Stuermer. He intended to self-inject the vaccine in public at the Austin body hacking conference. But a week before the event, Stuermer wasn’t all that sure about his “vaccine”. The method quoted by the scientific article had only been tested on mice. Its reliability was subject to caution insofar as mice have significantly different immune systems from those of human beings…
And then, Stuermer started having doubts on DNA vaccines and the development of auto-immune diseases. At the last moment, he changed his mind. With surprise, the community discovered in Austin that Traywick himself would self-inject the vaccine…
On the Saturday before the injection, the affair turned into a farce. The conflict was open between the members of the project. Some of them wished to get their equipment back for an estimated value of $50,000. But Traywick had the locks changed on the Jacksonville lab in Florida where it was stored. The situation ended up in a fight. Traywick even barricaded himself inside for several hours. He pressured the web developer into closing the company site internet for maintenance, claiming the company would supply more scientific arguments later on.
The following day, Tristan Roberts, Andreas Stuermer and half of the Ascendance team gave an improvised press conference on Facebook.. They announced they were breaking with Traywick and explained they would no longer work for Ascendance, since Traywick allegedly pushed them to neglect the scientific concerns in order to respect the deadlines set to reveal his famous new therapies to the press.
Tristan Roberts even declared one must “eliminate” Traywick from the biohacker community before he “hurts people”. He assured the latter was a “con artist” who was deceiving his investors and was blinded by his capitalist ambitions. He in fact explained that Traywick meant to test his anti-aids treatment in Venezuela soon…
Biohacker Tristan Roberts says it's better in the long term if they 'eliminate' pantless CEO Aaron Traywick from their biohacking community before he hurts people.
Traywick had plans of offering Ascendance Biomedical's experimental HIV "cure" to people in Venezuela. pic.twitter.com/Sg0V3NVBLi
— Biohack Info (@biohackinfo) February 12, 2018
Tristan Roberts points the finger at one of the truly problematic concerns: Traywick constantly talks about a “remedy”, it’s an abuse of language, whereas he says “our scientific team is legitimate, its science is legitimate”. And he adds “We can do better, we will do better.”