'Citizen Bio': Meet biohacker Gabriel Licina who tested night-vision eye drops and is working on gene therapy

'Citizen Bio': Meet biohacker Gabriel Licina who tested night-vision eye drops and is working on gene therapy
Gabriel Licina (Showtime)

The world of biohacking and the people involved may seem strange to most of us, but for the biohackers themselves, they are doing important work in making low-cost and effective medicine widely available to the public. Because they do not have the kind of access to funding or materials like big pharma companies, biohackers generally work out of their garages or their rooms, often testing experimental therapies on themselves.

Showtime's latest documentary, 'Citizen Bio', gives more insight into the world of biohacking, aka DIY biology, and focuses on a few individuals who have created waves in America, with its key focus on the late Aaron Traywick, a self-proclaimed biohacker who gained notoriety in February 2018 during a biohackers conference, when he pulled his pants down to inject himself with a homemade herpes vaccine on stage. That act brought a lot of criticism — for one, Traywick did not particularly know what it was he was injecting into himself. Biohackers felt that Traywick was being too theatrical and when Traywick announced that he planned to distribute his company, Ascendence Biomedical's DIY HIV gene therapy to poor patients in Venezuela, he raised more criticism for his elitist and racist thinking. Traywick's death two months later raised more notoriety when he was found unconscious in a sensory deprivation tank in a float spa. His autopsy revealed the presence of the drug, ketamine in his system.

Traywick himself had not worked on that herpes vaccine and 'Citizen Bio' focuses on the individuals who did, in fact, work on it and how they disapproved of Traywick's methods towards the end of the latter's life. One of those biohackers was Gabriel Licina, a biohacker, who had himself become famous a few years earlier when he volunteered to test out night-vision eye drops. Licina, who has a degree in molecular biology, now heads Scihouse, an organization that is studying the use of gene therapy to address not just diseases, but also, potentially climate change — the latter by understanding how fungus can clean up ocean plastic, and how to make trees grow faster.

In March 2015, Licina helped test out a biohacker-developed eye drop, containing a small amount of a chemical called Chlorin e6, or ce6. The chemical has been used in cancer treatment for years and is one of the molecules used by plants during photosynthesis. It is understood that this is the chemical responsible for deep marine creatures being able to see in the deep dark ocean waters — ce6 makes people's eyes more sensitive to red light. Within hours, Licina reported that he could make out shapes of objects up to a distance of 50 meters in the dark.

With Scihouse, Licina is working on developing Slybera, a biohacked affordable knock-off of the extremely expensive Glybera, a gene therapy treatment designed to reverse lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD), a rare inherited disorder which can cause severe pancreatitis. Glybera was sold just once and was abandoned because its high cost (one shot cost a million dollars) meant patients could not afford to buy it. There exists no other treatment for LPLD.

'Citizen Bio' premiered on Showtime on Friday, October 30, at 9/8c.

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