'Citizen Bio': Who is Tristan Roberts? Meet the biohacker who injected himself with untested HIV gene therapy
Aaron Traywick remains to this day – and will possibly remain so – one of the most controversial figures in the world of biohacking. The self-proclaimed biohacker had gained notoriety during his lifetime for his theatrical acts while promoting biohacking. His most controversial public act was during a biohackers conference in February 2018, when he pulled down his pants and injected himself with what was told to be a herpes vaccine developed by the biohackers who were being sponsored by his company, Ascendence Biomedical.
No one really knew where Traywick got the money from to support these DIY biology enthusiasts, but there were a few experimental treatments that Ascendance was sponsoring to keep going. One of those was an HIV gene therapy and the main human subject/guinea pig on whom that was tested was another biohacker, Tristan Roberts. In 2011, Roberts tested HIV positive, but a few years later, he stopped taking conventional antiretroviral drugs because he hated the side effects and was worried that missing a single dose could lead to building up the virus' immunity.
When you first see Roberts in Showtime's latest documentary, 'Citizen Bio', he seems quite unassuming, and if you were not aware of Traywick's past, it might seem unlikely that the two might have been pictured together as colleagues. It was in October 2017 that the first live stream happened – Roberts injected himself with an untested, experimental gene therapy into his stomach fat, he was sitting on a leather couch in his friend-slash-yoga instructor's living room while Traywick looked on. That was only the first of many self-administered experimental treatments that Roberts has attempted. Traywick intended for the HIV gene therapy to become ready by February 2018 and to go to Venezuela and distribute the vaccines there. The ethics of the situation – giving an experimental treatment that was untested and potentially unsafe to people who did not have other options – did not seem to bother Traywick.
The tiny amount of liquid Roberts injected into the fat cells under his skin contained trillions of plasmids, hoop-shaped pieces of DNA containing a section that should trigger the production of the antibody N6. A US National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed N6 neutralized 98% of the HIV virus in lab conditions. The antibody came from a single person, one of the tiny number of HIV patients known to scientists whose bodies somehow manage the virus on their own.
Traywick's death in February 2018 -- he accidentally drowned in a sensory deprivation isolation tank in a float spa while under the influence of ketamine -- caused more notoriety in the field and while Roberts had difficulty securing additional funding, he did manage to do so and continued to test on himself. The second of those tests are seen in 'Citizen Bio' and took place in March 2019. Though unseen in the documentary, Roberts went on to have an adverse reaction to that injection, but still, he continues with his work and posts updates about his work on his blog.
'Citizen Bio' premiered on Showtime on Friday, October 30, at 9/8c.