Self-experimentation has a long history. Scientists have consumed, breathed in, and injected themselves with all manner of substances in the pursuit of scientific understanding. Some have even received Nobel prizes for putting themselves under the microscope. But with the advances in genetic engineering, none have altered their own DNA, in the name of science, until now.
Dr. Josiah Zayner is a biohacker and the founder and CEO of a genetic engineering company called The Odin, which sells biotechnology tools to other biohackers like himself.
“What we try to do is get genetic engineering in the hands of consumers to let them do basically whatever they want with it,” he says.
On Oct. 4 at a biotechnology conference in San Francisco, Zayner says he injected himself using CRISPR, a relatively new gene-editing technique, where he removed the protein Myostatin from an area in his forearm. Myostatin inhibits muscle growth so he should, at least in theory, notice an increase in muscle mass in this area after the experiment.
The process involved just one piece of DNA that contains a protein (Cas9) and a guide RNA (gRNA), which essentially tells the protein where to go. When the modified DNA was injected into his forearm, the protein and gRNA targeted and then deleted the myostatin gene.
“Well, it’s not necessarily that I want bigger muscles,” he says. “The thing is, that this is the first time in history that we are no longer slaves to our genetics. We no longer have to live with the genetics we had when we were born. Technologies like CRISPR and other genetic modification technologies allow adult humans to modify the cells in their body.”
Often our cells’ DNA repair machinery makes mistakes. Zayner says, “In this case, when CRISPR targeted this gene and cut it, in the repair process, occasionally an extra base pair would be added. And when this base pair is added, the gene isn’t made properly, so essentially the gene doesn’t function, what they call ‘a knockout.’ So essentially the myostatin gene was knocked out in a portion of my cells.”
Zayner says that when similar experiments are done in non-human primates, like macaques, it generally takes around 16 weeks to see results. “I’m hoping to see localized muscle growth in my forearm. That’s what I would hope because it was a localized injection to a specific area.”
“This is the first time in the history of the Earth that humans are no longer slaves to the genetics they are born with,” said Zayner.