Where it was once a term to imply incompetence, the word “hack” now has a variety of connotations. Thanks to technology, “hack” has become a multi-faceted verb implying a shortcut, or workaround. There’s an implied cleverness as well; “lifehack” sounds so much more subversive and cool than “tip.”
Enter “biohacking.” Semantically speaking, the term could apply to any health or dietary choice that affects your biology. However, there are also biohackers who are hacking their bodies with technology, like CRISPR gene editing. Although it may not seem important whether the term is used as a flattering description of your new diet or refers to a specific medical procedure, it matters a lot. This is because biohackers risk charges for practicing medicine without a license.
Father of Biohacking
Dave Asprey calls himself the “father of biohacking.” That sounds presumptuous, but given that he got “biohacker” in Merriam Webster with a definition that includes his name, he’s earned the title. Asprey is the founder of Bulletproof Coffee, which has expanded into a larger brand, probably the preeminent brand of biohacking.
Although Merriam Webster’s version is shorter, here’s Asprey’s definition of biohacking: “The art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you, so you have full control over your own biology.” For Asprey, complete biological control is both good business and a quixotic mission. In a recent profile, Men’s Health outlined the steps the 45-year-old has taken in his quest to live to the age of 180.
“…He plans to get his own stem cells injected into him every six months, take 100 supplements a day, follow a strict diet, bathe in infrared light, hang out in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and wear goofy yellow-lensed glasses every time he gets on an airplane. So far, Asprey says he’s spent at least a million dollars hacking his own biology, and making it to 2153 will certainly take several million more.”
Asprey has built Bulletproof into a multi-million dollar business. So has Dr. Joseph Mercola, the namesake of Mercola.com. A proponent of alternative medicine—the more hippie-friendly version of biohacking—Mercola has written two New York Times best-selling books and has appeared on shows like “Dr. Oz” and “The Doctors.”
However, Dr. Mercola has frequently found himself at the center of controversies. In a scathing 2017 profile posted to The Ringer, a variety of health experts raised concerns about Mercola.
“Joseph Mercola is among the top misinformation vectors of our time when it comes to health, medicine, food, parenting, and more,” pro-biotechnology activist and writer Kavin Senapathy told The Ringer. “He promotes chemophobia and spreads fear of chemicals, GMOs, and vaccines, all while peddling alternatives to line his pockets.”
Who Do You Trust?
Regardless of Mercola’s credibility, it highlights the fundamental issue facing the biohacking community. That is: How do you build clout in a group inherently mistrustful of traditional science and medicine? Many of the principals of biohacking contradict the values of the scientific establishment.
Take regulation, for example. FDA approval is meant to signal consumers that a product will have its intended efficacy. However, the slow approval process means breakthroughs can be delayed for years before they reach the market.
“Regulation got us the food pyramid that causes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in unprecedented numbers of people,” Asprey told Men’s Health. Without regulation, bad actors can abound, and snake oil salesmen can flourish.
Biohacking Behind Bars
This push-and-pull is playing out right now. Earlier last month, biohacker Josiah Zayner was notified by the state of California that he’s under investigation for practicing medicine without a license.
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WTF!!!! I have been accused of practicing medicine without a license because of genetic self-experimentation and showing people how to access publicly available knowledge. The truth is that I have never given anyone anything to inject or use, never sold any material meant to treat a disease and never claim to provide treatments or cures because I knew this day would come. The fucked up part is that so many people are dying not because of me but because the FDA and government refuses to allow people access to cutting edge treatments or in some cases even basic healthcare. Yet I am the one threatened with jail. How many years behind bars should politicians need to spend for all the people who have died because they were denied access to proper medical care? Yet they come after me. Dammit, I need some whiskey to calm down now. #RightToTry #RightToLive #BodyAutonomy #biohacker #biohacking #science #FuckYouIWontDoWhatYouTellMe
A former NASA scientist, Zayner founded The Odin to sell CRISPR gene editing kits to the public. These range from fluorescent yeast kits to make glow-in-the-dark beer to a Green Tree Frog kit where you can “learn to genetically modify animals.”
As part of his mission to “get genetic engineering into the hands of consumers,” he once injected himself with CRISPR, live on YouTube. However, Zayner told the East Bay Times that he has “never given anyone anything to inject or use, never sold any material meant to treat a disease and never claim to provide treatments or cures.”
Zayner will meet with authorities next month. He faces up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Biohack to the Future
Ultimately, cases like Zayner’s illustrate just how far behind regulators have fallen. Rapid advancements in tech far outpace the slow gears of law. The methodical testing processes in medicine are antithetical to immediate, game-changing breakthroughs. Sprinkle in a general mistrust of the nutritional norms that have made America the most obese nation on Earth, and you have a strong resistance to oversight among biohackers.
Unfortunately, biology is a matter of life and death; even Zayner worries that biohacking will one day go too far. Expressing regret over his YouTube CRISPR stunt, Zayner told The Atlantic last year that, “there’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually.”
Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. In the meantime, expect experienced scientists and amateurs alike to continue to biohack themselves, and even more to follow their lead.