These Bay Area biohackers tried to disrupt health care. New doc shows what went wrong.

These Bay Area biohackers tried to disrupt health care. New doc shows what went wrong.

Silicon Valley has always strived to achieve the impossible. The story of super-smart underdogs creating new technologies with few regards for rules has come to define start-up culture, but the growing pains of leveling up from DIY hacker house to unicorn status are one of the culture’s most cautionary tales.

Typically that type of story revolves around computer code. In the new Showtime documentary “Citizen Bio” (premiering Oct 30), the hacker subjects aren’t diving into algorithms, but rather their own DNA, hoping to disrupt what is perhaps the country’s most broken system: health care. “Biohacking,” is the diverse field centered around the concept that at-home scientific experimentation can serve as a shortcut to the development of treatments, vaccines and cyborg-esque tech implants which would otherwise be stalled up by tradition medical testing regulations.


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“I think biohacking is really a response to a need, a human need in society and gaps in society, particularly in the U.S. People’s health care and medical care needs are not necessarily being directly met in the medical system you have in the U.S.,” says director Trish Dolman.

From 2017 to 2019, Dolman followed four biohackers attempting moonshots that range from curing cancer and herpes to creating night vision contact lenses to implanting hard drives in their arms. Filming takes place all over the country, but spotlights a few particular Bay Area hubs, including The ODIN and Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, as well as BioCurious in Santa Clara. The storylines intersect around the late CEO of Ascendance Biomedical, Aaron Traywick, a controversial patron of the biohacking community who accidentally drowned in 2018 at age 28.

Although these citizen scientists are armed with futuristic CRISPR technology that allows them to target specific DNA points in their genetic code, the mentality actually harkens back to an older age of scientific discovery. For example, one of the two most prominent research teams for a polio vaccine first tested it on themselves.

“If you look at the history of what we now call science, it was very much about observation and about self-experimentation throughout human history. We learned what plants we could use and about different medicines by experimenting on ourselves. The early European scientists discovered things literally through observations,” says Dolman.

Professional lab environments are used by some of the biohackers featured in the film, but more often than not they’re shown experimenting in their kitchens and garages. The DIY settings are fitting given that many of the self-administered treatments in the film reside in a legal and moral gray area, and that independence and self-sufficiency are some of the core tenants of the movement.

When Traywick enters the fray, with seemingly unlimited funding and a knack for promotion that included injecting himself with a herpes vaccine on-stage at a biohacking conference, it steers the movement into territory that will be familiar to those who heard the saga of disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.

“It’s a very fragile community of people … He kind of went off like a bomb in the community, because it brought a lot of media attention and publicity,” says Dolman.

Sometimes the focus on media attention overshadowed the projects themselves (that “herpes vaccine” was likely a placebo), and soon enough, the open source ethos of disrupting expensive medical care took a back seat to monetization, leading to a rift between Traywick and the scientists he’d helped bring into the spotlight.

“For me, it’s really a story of people growing and learning through this experience. And having to take stock amongst themselves about what their values are,” says Dolman. “If you have a decentralized group of people who are working outside of the mainstream, can you get those people to conform to a code of ethics? Do they want to, do they have to, or can they just keep doing their own thing?”

Now a year after filming, most of the biohackers featured in the film have pivoted towards developing a vaccine for COVID-19 … and according to Dolman, several believe they’ve actually succeeded. But for one of the Bay Area hackers, the early promise of his homemade vaccine led him to have a greater appreciation for more traditional lab testing.

“The results are going to be messy,” Josiah Zayner of ODIN in Oakland told Bloomberg. “The experiments are going to be messy. So you test 30,000 people so that the messiness kind of averages out.”

For squeamish viewers, there are definitely scenes in “Citizen Bio” that have such a high potential for messiness you’ll want to close your eyes. But even so, Dolman felt that the biohackers featured took necessary safety precautions.

“I didn’t feel like ‘Oh, someone’s going to blow up the world here.’ Could they potentially harm themselves? I suppose so, but that brings up the notion of informed consent and knowing the risks going in.”

As far as judging those risks, Dolman’s experience following the biohacking community were encouraging enough that she’d consider trying one of their vaccines herself.

“I’d want to understand why they think it’s effective, but we’re all going to be doing that very soon, right?” she says describing a potential COVID-19 vaccine. “… Hopefully.”

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