Bio-hacking: how far is too far?

Super-smart humans: should we genetically engineer them? Are we cool with people biohacking DNA in their bedrooms? What about people seeking a human upgrade through tech implants – are we ok with that? Talk about biohacking, and you’re going to end up asking a lot of questions. Especially: how do you even define it?

“I would say that biohacking is a do-it-yourself way to try to change your biology,” says Dr Tamara Sunbul, who leads Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare’s work on informatics. This might mean altering your sleep pattern. Or body hacking yourself by implanting an RFID chip that turns your hand into a credit card. Given the range of activities it covers, it can be hard to wrestle with the ethics of biohacking – unless you’re specific. “I think that you need to break it up into the different types. That helps,” offers Dr Sunbul.

The most straight-forward is nutrigenomics – altering your diet to try to affect your genes. Some eating regimes limit food intake to supposedly biohack your body into regenerating cells, by mimicking what your body does when it’s fasting. Others identify the microbe composition in your gut (aka your microbiome) via stool samples. They then recommend a tailored nutrition plan that allegedly fights ageing and boosts your immune system.

Nutrigenomics is on the up. Companies like the gut-health-based Viome are now such big business that they have expected revenues of $100million and have recently lured GlaxoSmithKline’s Chief of Vaccines to join them as Head of Research and Development. Whilst some scientists claim that there isn’t enough rigorous medical analysis to prove nutrigenomics’ potential benefits, this is a standard objection to biohacking.

“Often biohacking involves ideas that aren’t proven from a medical perspective. It’s almost a trial thing,” offers Dr Sunbul. “But that’s today. In ten years, some of these things will have proof and science will have caught up.”

This applies largely to projects from institutions that know their way around a bit of scientific rigour. Another type of biohacking, referred to as DIY bio, thinks that everyone can biohack. Practitioners might order a CRISPR kit – which lets you edit genes at home – or try grinder biohacking, which involves physically modifying themselves. This can range from trying to create night vision to implanting magnets in your fingertips. And it’s where scientists fear that biohacking gets a bit OTT.

“I think we should explore all of the options of medical science,” says Chandra Khatri, who heads up the AI team at Got It AI and whose support of biohacking extends to practicing nutrigenomics. “But enough research has to be done, it needs proper guidance and it needs a controlled environment. We’ve seen one virus bring all of the earth’s economies to their knees with Covid. We don’t know what using a DNA kit at home could cause to go wrong.”

What about another area of biohacking: implanting devices into the body? Elon Musk’s Neuralink recently made the world’s jaws drop at this field’s potential, after brain hacking a monkey, so it uses implanted chips to play a video game with its mind. Some medical professionals see in-body devices as the future of medical treatment for things such ashearing aids or glucose monitoring (“they need to be properly proven and approved by medical authorities, but I think in the future we’ll all have chips in ourselves”, offers Dr Sunbul). But body hacking also opens a new world of problems.

This applies largely to projects from institutions that know their way around a bit of scientific rigour. Another type of biohacking, referred to as DIY bio, thinks that everyone can biohack. Practitioners might order a CRISPR kit – which lets you edit genes at home – or try grinder biohacking, which involves physically modifying themselves. This can range from trying to create night vision to implanting magnets in your fingertips. And it’s where scientists fear that biohacking gets a bit OTT.

“I think we should explore all of the options of medical science,” says Chandra Khatri, who heads up the AI team at Got It AI and whose support of biohacking extends to practicing nutrigenomics. “But enough research has to be done, it needs proper guidance and it needs a controlled environment. We’ve seen one virus bring all of the earth’s economies to their knees with Covid. We don’t know what using a DNA kit at home could cause to go wrong.”

What about another area of biohacking: implanting devices into the body? Elon Musk’s Neuralink recently made the world’s jaws drop at this field’s potential, after brain hacking a monkey, so it uses implanted chips to play a video game with its mind. Some medical professionals see in-body devices as the future of medical treatment for things such ashearing aids or glucose monitoring (“they need to be properly proven and approved by medical authorities, but I think in the future we’ll all have chips in ourselves”, offers Dr Sunbul). But body hacking also opens a new world of problems.

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