'Citizen Bio': Biohacking advocates for open science, but where do we draw the line for ethical implications?

The documentary delves partly into the ethical implications of biohacking, especially in the context of Aaron Traywick, who is the focus of 'Citizen Bio'


                            'Citizen Bio': Biohacking advocates for open science, but where do we draw the line for ethical implications?
'Citizen Bio' (Showtime)

Showtime's latest documentary, 'Citizen Bio' delves into the world of biohacking -- the act of making modifications to your body for enhancements. Of course, biohacking covers a wide range of activities -- right from sleeping fewer hours or intermittent fasting to something more extreme, like eye drops to enhance your night vision or implanting yourself with a biometrics sensor. The Showtime documentary especially focuses on one controversial figure in the field: self-proclaimed hacker, Aaron Traywick, who gained notoriety for his theatrics during a biohacker conference, when he took off his pants on stage and injected himself with what was purported to be a homemade herpes vaccine (something he only confirmed for himself after he injected himself with it).

Two months later, Traywick was found unconscious in a sensory deprivation tank in a float spa. An autopsy revealed that Traywick was under the influence of the drug, ketamine at the time of his death. Before his death, Traywick had alienated others from the biohacker sphere, even those he sponsored through his company, Ascendance Biomedical. While Traywick started out with wanting to make science open without governmental and private restrictions (like most biohackers aim to do), it would seem he was beginning to change his stance. In a conversation with other biohackers, he was seen arguing against open science, saying that it could be misused. 

Now, Traywick had a point when he said that but it does not necessarily imply that is why he opposed it. Traywick himself wasn't to be trusted when it came to the ethical implications of biohacking. During the February 2018 conference, after he injected himself with the vaccine, he announced that his company would go to Venezuela at a later stage to distribute the HIV gene therapy medication they were working on after the subsequent trial stage. Of course, this never happened given Traywick's death soon after. At first glance, it looks like what Traywick wanted to do was noble. But here's where it is ambiguous. Traywick wanted to make the medicine available for the poorer sections of society in Venezuela who couldn't afford expensive treatments. But Traywick probably intended it for them to be the first mass trial and without regulatory oversight, that could have led to disastrous consequences.

There is an instance of this actually happening. Between 2013 and 2016, William Halford, a late professor of medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology there, injected patients with a herpes vaccine, both preventative and therapeutic, in hotel rooms near campus and in St Kitts -- all without approval from an institutional review board overseeing research on human subjects. Details about the research and vaccine were unclear and these trials led to participants getting sick. The FDA ended up launching a criminal investigation into the trial because of the way it was conducted.

Another ethical implication lies in what Traywick himself mentioned -- the use of unregulated science to develop bioweapons. In 2006, the FBI established the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate. Since then, its Biological Countermeasures Unit has closely followed the emerging field of biohacking. While biohackers argue that their form of science is not new science, just a different way to do things, there have been collaborations to ensure some sort of first-line defense against potential dangers.

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

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