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Science and Technology

Biohacking a better me

Lilian Anekwe
On the possibilities and pitfalls of biohacking

Biotechnology has progressed beyond tweaking the DNA of bacteria, viruses, yeast and plant cells. It’s possible that soon we’ll have the technology to challenge philosophical beliefs about the appearance and limitations of the human body. If you could redesign yourself from scratch, what would you change?

Science for the people (and dogs)

One of biohacking’s main goals is to make scientific research about the human body accessible to all. Instead of keeping their findings locked away in high tech labs, biohackers are looking to bring their research to the masses. They hope that by encouraging people to become informed, they will be more open to the possibilities of biohacking and transhumanism.

To this end, molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen opened what is now the world’s highest-profile biohacking lab, GenSpace, in 2009. Members pay a monthly fee to hire space for their own experiments, either for commercial or artistic purposes, or just for (whisper it) fun.

There’s a popular anecdote about a biohacker at GenSpace using his newly gleaned scientific insight to track down the dog responsible for fouling a neighbourhood pavement. By throwing tennis balls to dogs in his area, he collected saliva samples from which to extract DNA, identified the offending dog, and then confronted the owner.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are hackers like Lepht Anonym. In 2010 and 11, Lepht implanted sensors under the skin that unlock computers and other personal devices, including doors and keypads. The goal was to “transition to a physical cyborg state”, enhancing and even developing new senses. Lepht does all of these procedures him/herself (Lepht is ‘genderless’), without anaesthesia, and uses his/her own body as a test dummy.

The implants contain magnets coated in gold and silicon to prevent them being destroyed by the immune system. The implants then pick up on the electromagnetic fields generated by electronic devices.

And press print

One important and potentially mass market application of biohacking is 3D bioprinting, which uses printers to create solid objects from human cells. Already a company called Organovo has taken delivery of the world’s first commercial bioprinter, and has successfully bioprinted human blood vessels.

The 3D bioprinter allows scientists to place cells of almost any type into a desired pattern. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for placing a scaffold. The cells used by the device – the ‘ink’ – need to be the cells of whatever is being regenerated. Building an artery requires arterial cells, for example. But because the patient’s own cells are used, the tissue is a perfect match. This neatly side-steps the need for transplant candidates to take high doses of immunosuppressant drugs.

So the time could come when you could produce your own body parts – cells, tissue, organs – to your own individual specifications. Enthusiasts say the future direction of bioprinting means doctors could create cells on top of existing skin to heal wounds, or combine bioprinters with keyhole surgical tools to create new organs inside the body during surgery.

The possibilities are limitless and exciting; biohackers should keep asking questions and embrace their weirdest impulses. These are, in many ways, the most important projects – the ones that will teach us more about how biology works, and about our own creativity.

Lilian Anekwe (@JournoLil). Illustration: Bruno Vergauwen.

The time could come when you could produce your own body parts - cells, tissue, organs - to your own individual specifications



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