Then there’s Andrew Hessel, a biohacker fed up with the biotech business model, which he believes is built on the hoarding of intellectual property and leads companies to prioritize one-size-fits-all blockbuster drugs. “During the sixty years or so that computers went from a roomful of vacuum tubes to iPhones, the pace of drug development has never quickened,” Hessel tells Wohlsen. Hoping to change that, Hessel is developing the first DIY drug development company, the Pink Army Cooperative, whose goal is to bioengineer custom-made viruses that will battle breast cancer. “Personalized therapies made just for you. In weeks or days, not years. Believe it. It’s time for a revolution,” the company’s website proclaims. “We are trying to be the Linux of cancer,” Hessel explains.
Of course, some of these possibilities are frightening. If biohackers can engineer organisms to cure diseases, surely they can engineer organisms to inflict them. Wohlsen, however, isn’t overly concerned. The technology just isn’t in place for biohackers to bioengineer weapons worth worrying about, he says. Not only is genetic engineering unnecessary to commit acts of bioterror, he writes, but it’s also much more complex than other options available for manufacturing biotoxins. In fact, the FBI has expressed interest in using DIY biohackers as “sentries on biosecurity’s front lines.”
And yet, writes Wohlsen, the biohackers have yet to produce any truly novel results, and he isn’t convinced that they will. “They are not about to cure cancer when an eleven-thousand-employee, $80 billion company like Genentech has so far failed. They are not going to unleash the world’s first artificial amoeba tomorrow or graft wings onto house cats,” he writes. “The real significance of DIY biotechnologists might lie not in any particular technological achievement but in the provocative questions they raise.”
Wohlsen, while sympathetic to the biohackers’ ideals, remains neutral about the merits of their activities. He offers few opinions of his own but raises the questions we need to begin asking: What is the value of expertise relative to the wisdom of crowds? Do intellectual property laws further or slow scientific progress? Should access to information about our own bodies be held as a basic human right? How much regulatory oversight is warranted when it comes to tinkering with life? And, ultimately, should just anyone be able to do science?
Personally, I’d still rather have a physician in charge of my health than tinker with it myself using partial knowledge and makeshift tools. But it’s fun to know that the latter is possible. I won’t hold my breath waiting for someone to cure cancer in his or her garage, but I am glad to know people are out there trying—and it will be profoundly cool if they succeed.