As I've been saying for the past couple of years, gene therapies are straightforward enough and cheap enough to carry out that people are doing it, usually quietly, but it is happening. You only have to be connected enough to know a biotechnologist or two with the right skills, as the example here shows. The stage of the adventurous and the self-experimenters is an important part of the development of any new medical technology, helping to overcome institutional reluctance while gathering initial data on how best to approach such treatments in practice. The next part of the process, something that does requires much greater funding and participation from the research and development community, will happen over the next few years; it involves making the therapies more robust, the outcomes more reliable, and assembling the suite of tools and clinics needed for those tasks. That is certainly the goal of BioViva, and as they move forward, others will join them.
There is more than enough evidence for the potential utility of enhancement gene therapies based on producing greater muscle growth and improved metabolism via increased follistatin or myostatin knockout, ranging from numerous animal studies to existing natural human and animal mutants to myostatin antibody trials. There is also considerable interest in telomerase gene therapies, though I'd like to wait for more data on that front before diving in myself, given the potential cancer risk. Once these initial approaches are out there, available, and the methodologies of gene therapy have progressed to the point at which there is reliably comprehensive cell coverage - especially in stem cells, as that will determine how lasting the effect is - then a score of other genes bear further investigation and consideration as targets for enhancement therapies.
While I applaud those who set out to undergo gene therapy today, as their work is necessary to move matters along in this age of overabundant caution and oppressive regulation of every activity, I can't say as I think the fellow here made a good choice of gene. This has the look of a more sophisticated form of the hormone therapies practiced over the past few decades, approaches that really don't have a good impact on aging, and outside of correcting deficiencies are not something that should benefit or is expected to benefit someone in normal health for their age. Increased growth hormone, if anything, is exactly the opposite of what animal and human studies suggest is good for longevity.
Last June at a plastic surgeon's office in Davis, California, at Brian Hanley request, a doctor had injected into his thighs copies of a gene that Hanley, a PhD microbiologist, had designed and ordered from a research supply company. Then, plunging two pointed electrodes into his leg, the doctor had passed a strong current into his body, causing his muscle cells to open and absorb the new DNA. The effort is the second case documented of unregulated gene therapy, a risky undertaking that is being embraced by a few daring individuals seeking to develop anti-aging treatments. The gene Hanley added to his muscle cells would make his body produce more growth-hormone-releasing hormone - potentially increasing his strength, stamina, and life span.
Hanley, 60, is the founder of a one-man company called Butterfly Sciences, also in Davis. After encountering little interest from investors for his ideas about using DNA injections to help strengthen AIDS patients, he determined that he should be the first to try it. "I wanted to prove it, I wanted to do it for myself, and I wanted to make progress," says Hanley of his decision to arrange an experiment on himself. Most gene therapy involves high-tech, multimillion-dollar experiments carried out by large teams at top medical centers, with an eye to correcting rare illnesses like hemophilia. But Hanley showed that gene therapy can be also carried out on the cheap in the same setting as liposuction or a nose job, and might one-day be easily accessed by anyone. In an attempt to live longer, some enthusiasts of anti-aging medicine already inject growth hormone, swallow fullerenes, or gulp megavitamins, sometimes with disregard for mainstream medical thinking. Now unregulated gene therapy could be the next frontier.
Hanley's undertaking has caught the attention of big league scientists. His blood is now being studied by researchers at Harvard University at the laboratory of George Church, the renowned genomics expert. Church says he knows of a handful of other cases of do-it-yourself gene therapy as well. "And there are probably a lot more, although no one is quite sure, since regulators have not signed off on the experiments. This is a completely free-form exercise." At least one additional person who underwent self-administered gene therapy is a U.S. biotech executive who did not want his experience publicly known because he is dealing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on other matters. Hanley says he did not secure the approval of the FDA before carrying out his experiment either. The agency requires companies to seek an authorization called an investigational new drug application, or IND, before administering any novel drug or gene therapy to people. "They said 'You need an IND' and I said, 'No, I don't,'" recalls Hanley, who traded emails with officials at the federal agency. He argued that self-experiments should be exempt, including because they don't pose any risk to the public.
So what happens next? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could get involved, intervening with warning letters or site visits or auditing his ethics board. The plastic surgeon-whose name Hanley wished to keep confidential-could face questions from California's medical board. Companies that supply plasmids might start taking a closer look at who is ordering DNA and what they plan to do with it. Or perhaps authorities will simply look the other way because Hanley experimented on himself. Hanley is proud of what he's done. He created a company, secured patents, made new contacts, identified a gene therapy that has plausible benefits for people, thought in detail about the risks, and offered himself up as a pioneering volunteer.