Aaron Traywick dropped his pants and prepared to plunge a small syringe into his left thigh. His colleagues leaned in to get a closer look. The audience in the crowd was momentarily silent, as if gritting their teeth and holding their breath.
The syringe was filled with an experimental herpes therapy based on a treatment method only previously tested in mice, and Traywick was about to become the first human to ever try it. On stage. In front of an audience. With his pants down.
Traywick is the theatrical 28-year-old CEO of Ascendance Biomedical, a strange biotech firm funding what might be politely described as very unorthodox approaches to biomedical research. The vaccine he injected into his thigh at Body Hacking Con in Austin on Sunday wasn’t something made in a fancy academic lab and put through the Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous clinical trial application process. It was made by biohackers contracted by Ascendance, with no PhDs or access to million dollar labs.
Traywick stressed to the audience that the vaccine had gone through “insane levels” of testing to make sure it was safe.
“Did you have an ethical commission?” someone in the crowd wanted to know.
“No,” Traywick answered. The crowd laughed.
“We label everything ‘not for human consumption,’ technically,” he said.
This was not the first time Ascendance had sought spotlight for a radical therapy conceived outside of academia or industry. In October, Ascendance sponsored an experiment in which another person injected themselves with a DIY HIV treatment during a Facebook livestream. Ascendance wants to get around FDA regulations for clinical trials in order to produce therapies more quickly, mainly by having biohackers crank out the science and trial participants perform experiments on themselves, since the agency does not typically intervene in self-experimentation.
Shortly after that experiment, the agency issued a strongly worded statement. “FDA is aware that gene therapy products intended for self-administration and ‘do it yourself’ kits to produce gene therapies for self-administration are being made available to the public,” the agency said at the time. “The sale of these products is against the law. FDA is concerned about the safety risks involved.” The FDA declined to comment on Sunday’s experiment specifically.
The treatment Traywick tested on Sunday was based on research intended to vaccinate against herpes simplex type 2 virus. It was primarily designed by a 25-year-old Austrian biohacker named Andreas Stuermer. One or the other form of herpes plagues an incredible number of people, so Stuermer habitually combs the academic literature for clues as to how to make a herpes vaccine that could prevent people from ever getting infected in the first place. A year or so ago, he found one especially intriguing paper. In order to enter cells in the human body, herpes relies on a protein on its surface known as ‘glycoprotein D.’ Delete the protein from the virus, the paper suggested, and it cannot spread.
It had worked in mice, at least. Stuermer wanted to try out the therapy on himself.
Academia, Stuermer told me, is taking “way too long” to bring a herpes vaccine to market. “You definitely have to do your due dilligence, but this specific virus has been proven to be safe for 20 or 30 years,” he said.
To replicate this mouse herpes vaccine that Stuermer had read about, he and a loose coterie of other biohackers working with Ascendance got their hands on the herpes simplex virus. They modified the virus’ code to delete the glycoprotein D gene, then inserted that code into a DNA construct known as a bacterial artificial chromosome that would spur the modified virus to replicate. They designed it all on a computer, then ordered it off the internet from a company that typically supplies such things to professional labs. From there, the plasmid got purified and sent out to an external lab to make sure that it didn’t contain any miscellaneous junk. To make the vaccine, the virus got mixed with a transfection agent intended to allow it to enter the body’s cells. If it works, this modified virus should theoretically float around in the body until the immune system kills it off, generating antibodies to herpes.
But biological breakthroughs and conference deadlines are not convenient bedfellows. Stuermer’s vaccine was several days behind in development. So Traywick, who says he contracted herpes five years ago, volunteered himself as lab rat. A less precise version of the same therapy, they thought, could potentially also help control herpes breakouts, or even cure it.
“We knew we could not delay,” he told the crowd, explaining the change in plans. “Luckily I have herpes, so I volunteered myself to make our narrative and our production schedule.”
Shortly, he said, a blood test would reveal evidence of whether the treatment worked.
“If we succeed with herpes in even the most minor ways, we can proceed with cancer,” Traywick told the crowd.
Biohackers have a knack for making the sort of science that academic researchers spend entire careers obsessing over in a lab sound like something that can be accomplished with just a few all-nighters. But that’s a pretty big if.
Sita Awasthi, a professor in the infectious disease division at University of Pennsylvania, told me she was sceptical that such a stunt would work.
“This vaccine is not clinically proven to be safe and effective in preventing or treating herpes infection in humans,” she said. “Also, it is not known whether the mystery company is producing this attenuated viral vaccine correctly in a good manufacturing practice facility.”
If things really go south, Traywick could wind up making himself even sicker.
“In the past, similar approaches have not prevented or treated herpes infection,” she said.
Even Josiah Zayner, an infamous biohacker widely known for pulling his own DIY gene injection stunts, said that the events on Sunday had gone too far.
“The idea that any scientist, biohacker or not, has created a cure for a disease with no testing and no data is more ridiculous than believing jet fuel melts steel beams,” he told me, after watching the event’s livestream.
In spite of the rush to develop the vaccine and the last minute change of plans, though, Traywick was ever-confident.
“I feel great,” he said, after stepping down from the stage and putting his pants back on. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”