The controversial biohacker Aaron Traywick, who was found dead in a sensory deprivation tank in Washington, DC, on April 29, appears to have been planning human tests of a CRISPR therapy for lung cancer, MIT Technology Review has learned.
Traywick, who was 28, made headlines in February when he injected himself with a DIY herpes treatment in front of an audience at a self-experimentation conference. He was CEO of Ascendance Biomedical, a mysterious company aimed at making gene-based medical treatments available to everyone.
The company had previously live-streamed another self-injection in October 2017. Tristan Roberts, an HIV patient, was filmed on Facebook injecting himself with a compound provided by Ascendance. The company called the treatment a gene therapy and said it was designed to lower the number of HIV particles in Roberts’s blood. It didn’t work: his viral load increased in the weeks following the injection.
Traywick, who had no formal medical training, was also planning to test an experimental lung cancer treatment that supposedly involved the gene-editing tool CRISPR. The therapy was to be offered at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, just a few miles over the US border.
A website called crisprrejevenation.com advertises the trial and lists Traywick on its “about” page. The website, which was registered and last updated in March, says the trial is enrolling 50 people with non-small-cell lung cancer. The site asks interested patients to pay a $25 fee for a consultation with Traywick before being able to enroll in the trial. It’s unknown whether any patients actually went through this process.
The website suggests the therapy will target the p53 gene, which normally acts as a tumor suppressor. But in patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, the gene often contains a mutation that allows cancer cells to grow out of control.
At the time of writing this story, a Facebook page for the trial also exists. The phone number listed on the website and Facebook page go to a Google Voice answering service for Ascendance Biomedical.
In December, the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy issued a statement warning patients about unregulated gene therapies, saying such procedures are potentially dangerous and unlikely to provide any benefit.
At the time, Michele Calos, a Stanford scientist and vice president of the organization, told MIT Technology Review she was worried that spurious clinics would start offering so-called gene therapies, similar to the way dubious stem-cell treatments have proliferated.
“This is the kind of thing we were afraid would happen, and it is probably destined to happened,” she said after viewing the CRISPR Rejuvenation website.
A handful of clinical trials for CRISPR-based cancer therapies are already under way in China. The first such study in the US, led by the University of Pennsylvania, is also currently accepting patients with certain types of cancer. According to a January story in the Wall Street Journal, Penn spent nearly two years addressing safety concerns before it got federal clearance to begin its trial.
An employee at the Tijuana clinic, International BioCare Hospital & Wellness Center, confirmed in a phone interview that doctors there were working with Traywick to set up the trial but won’t be moving forward with it after his death.
Typically, scientific studies that involve human subjects are first reviewed by an institutional review board, a committee that makes sure the research is ethical. The employee at International BioCare Hospital did not know whether Traywick’s planned study had been approved by such a committee.
Rodrigo Rodriguez, a physician and founder of International BioCare Hospital who is listed on the CRISPR Rejuvenation website, could not be reached for comment. The clinic offers “alternative” treatments for cancer, such as nutritional medicine, detoxification and comprehensive antioxidant therapy, ozone therapy, and whole-body hyperthermia, according to a promotional brochure. Such therapies have not been proved to be effective against cancer.
The other collaborators listed on the website could not be reached for comment.
In previous interviews with MIT Technology Review, Traywick said that Ascendance Biomedical aspired to bypass federal regulations and the typical years-long drug development process to speed new treatments to patients. There’s so far no evidence that any of Ascendance’s treatments have worked, and the company’s website provides few details on what the therapies are made of.