• Leah Hess

Biohacking: What You Need to Know About This Futuristic New Subculture

Updated: Jul 20, 2021


What is biohacking?

In general, biohacking refers to the use of do-it-yourself biology to enhance health, productivity, or performance. In practice, this can mean a variety of different things. Some biohackers simply use fitness tracking devices like Fitbits or Apple Watches, while others go so far as to implant computer chips into their skin or alter their own gene expression. The biohacking phenomenon has transformed into a full-on subculture, and members gather via forums, social media networks, and conventions such as Grindfest (a meetup that gained media attention after its coverage in a 2018 New York Times piece).


The motivations that drive someone to experiment with biohacking are also individualized. Some participate in the trend simply for its explicit purpose- self improvement. Improved sleep, digestion, immunity, emotional health, metabolism, and blood pressure are just some of the many areas targeted by biohackers. Similarly, some are motivated by the advancement of science and medicine, whether for themselves or the improvement of society. At its most extreme, these branches of hackers take on a transhumanist approach, believing that technology can and should be used to evolve the human species. Others modify their bodies as a form of self expression, using tattoos, piercings, subdermal implants, etc. to forge a unique appearance. Others see hacking through a political lens. Michael Laufer, for example, uses biohacking as a means of counteracting capitalism. Laufer published online instructions detailing how to create an at-home EpiPen, a notoriously expensive prescription used to treat anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction). He calls his invention an “EpiPencil” and touts it as a means to destroy prescription price gouging by Big Pharma.


Biohacking is clearly appealing to many, but is it safe?

Many forms of the trend are relatively low-risk. Actions like making small dietary changes or taking government regulated supplements are considered to be safer forms of biohacking. However, ingesting chemicals and embedding foreign objects into one’s body is not without considerable risk- especially when the substances are not FDA approved. Implanting technological devices, like magnets, computer chips, and subdermal implants, beneath one’s skin can lead to infection, nerve damage, corrosion of tissue, and implant rejection if not carried out by someone with the proper training (which many biohackers lack). The same can be said about chemicals. Large scale studies have not been conducted to ensure these procedures are safe, so long term consequences are unknown. Likewise, the use of medical devices must be monitored by a doctor, but that can be bypassed by obtaining medtech without a prescription from “black markets''. This lack of regulation of the biohacking space makes safety a grey area. If you are considering any type of body modification you should first consult a doctor or trained professional. Regular blood work is also recommended for anyone who is experimenting with biohacking.


Regardless, biohacking is gaining traction, and with that has come pushback from a variety of places.

Those with chronic illnesses that are managed with wearable technology have taken issue with biohackers that unnecessarily utilize their devices. Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) provide a good example of how biohacking can affect these populations. CGMs are wearable devices used by diabetics to monitor their blood glucose levels. Due to the inequitable nature of the healthcare system, not every diabetic who needs a CGM can afford one. This can lead to poor patient outcomes, as uncontrolled blood sugar levels can lead to serious health effects over time. Many may turn to so-called “black markets” where people buy, sell, and trade supplies at a fraction of the cost. This is where biohackers complicate the situation. Non-diabetics generally cannot be prescribed a CGM, so they must also use these under-the-table platforms to obtain one, leaving in-need diabetics with fewer options. This same principle applies to other chronic diseases managed with medical technology such as ECG monitors, wearable blood pressure monitors, and biosensors.


There has also been political pushback, but with little avail. For example, the FDA released a warning in response to Michael Laufer’s “EpiPencil”, but not much could be done in the area of law because he wasn’t selling a product- he was simply posting online. Even the more explicit forms of biohacking are hard to regulate. The United States does not currently ban genome editing conducted outside of licensed laboratories, giving genetic biohackers a high measure of freedom. Similarly, the FDA does have a degree of control over the substances that they regulate, many of which are used by biohackers. However, this is to regulate in practice; many experiments take place discretely by individuals or small-scale biohacking communities. Another avenue of regulation is patent enforcement, which could be applicable to biohackers who try to produce existing devices or substances for lower cost. Like the other forms of regulation, this is not sufficient to deter biohacking efforts. Patent owners often do not want to endure long and costly legal efforts to inhibit a practice that, in actuality, does not drastically affect their business. For these reasons, regulation has largely been used as a way to promote safe practices rather than to halt biohacking entirely. In fact, many biohacking organizations and communities have made it a point to adhere to their own codes of ethics, which align closely with practices outlined for licensed laboratories (such as those in the Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories guidance document).


 

Speaking Plainly:

-Biohacking is the use of technology to improve one’s health and well-being, and can refer to a variety of practices, like injecting or ingesting chemicals, utilizing wearable technology, or making dietary and lifestyle changes.

-People may turn to biohacking for different reasons, including self improvement, self expression, scientific interest, and political protest.

-The trend has garnered pushback from government organizations, the chronic disease community, and the scientific community.

-Because of the inherent lack of regulation that comes with these do-it-yourself procedures, little is known about the safety of biohacking at large, and foregoing medical oversight poses significant risks.