Aaron Traywick took to the stage at a biohacking conference in Austin, Texas, dropped his pants, and injected himself in the thigh with an experimental herpes treatment created by his company, Ascendance Biomedical.
The whole thing was broadcast on Facebook Live on February 4. It was more performance art than science, and even the audience—a room full of people interested in self-experimentation—seemed skeptical.
Traywick’s stunt is the latest example of self-injection by biohackers who, despite having limited or no medical experience, are concocting purported treatments from DNA strands they order on the internet.
Experts call the treatments unlikely to work and potentially dangerous, and the US Food and Drug Administration warned last November against “do-it-yourself” gene treatments (see “Biohackers Disregard FDA Warning on Gene Therapy”).
Traywick, the 28-year-old CEO of Ascendance, who holds a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies, told MIT Technology Review that his actions should be seen as a political statement.
“These therapies that we’re developing have the potential to allow individuals, without the requirement of a clinician or without the health care industry, to be able to self-design and self-administer treatments,” Traywick said. “I absolutely see gene therapy as political.”
Plus, he has herpes, and he’d like to be cured.
As yet, there is no evidence that Ascendance’s treatments work—and not even much information about what they consist of. Traywick said in an interview he planned to inject himself with a “live attenuated herpes virus with a missing protein.” Other reports suggested the injection contained engineered copies of the herpes virus DNA code.
Even other biohackers are worried. In a February 4 Facebook post, Josiah Zayner, a DIY biologist and CEO of The Odin, said Ascendance is “gravely misleading people and are making the biohacker community look like idiot scammers.”
Zayner said he now regrets doing a public injection of the gene-editing tool CRISPR last August, which he also streamed live online.
The FDA did not comment directly on the Ascendance event but said in a statement: “In general, if a sponsor (usually the manufacturer, potential marketer, or individual clinician) wants to test an unapproved product in humans, an investigational new drug application must be submitted to the FDA and be ‘in effect’ before the investigational product can be used.”
Ascendance says its activities are legal. “We label everything not for human consumption, technically,” Traywick said wryly during his livestream.
For all Traywick’s talk of democratizing biomedical research, Ascendance Biomedical is not exactly transparent. The company, incorporated in Singapore, hasn’t published any scientific papers, offers few details publicly about its executives, and declines to name its investors.
Ascendance is currently inviting the public to join a waiting list to receive one of 14 treatments it claims to have under development. “There are so many companies out there that are constantly claiming cures and breakthroughs that just don’t seem to come,” Traywick says.