Aaron Traywick injected himself with a DIY herpes treatment in front of a live audience— an expert explains why this really wasn't the best idea
A biohacker injected himself with an experimental herpes treatment in front of a live audience in Austin, Texas, on Monday.
28-year-old Aaron Traywick, who leads Ascendance Biomedical — the biotech firm behind the drug — injected a treatment that has not undergone any clinical trials for safety, much less gone through the FDA's drug approval process. It happened in front of a live audience, but a video of the event was also posted online.
Traywick told Men's Health that the purpose of the display was to "engage and inspire the public in a novel and wholly transparent presentation of a therapy our researchers have been developing for nearly a year." He said he hoped the experiment would "catalyze [the public's] engagement with similar self-experimentation using gene therapy."
According to The Verge, this bold move by Traywick isn't the first of its kind. As a biohacker, Traywick reportedly has a history of encouraging self-experimentation. Last year, his biotech firm live-streamed a man injecting himself with a similarly untested HIV treatment.
“We prefer to do everything before a live audience so you can hold us accountable in the days to come as we collect the data to prove whether or not this works,” he said prior to the injection. “If we succeed with herpes in even the most minor ways, we can move forward immediately with cancer.”
Ascendence, specifically, is focused on producing gene therapies to do things like reverse menopause, develop a drug that increases muscle mass and decreases fat mass, and, as Traywick demonstrated, cure herpes. Some biotech companies, including Ascendance, believe the current FDA approval process for drugs is too slow, so they turn to biohackers to both research and experiment with the drugs themselves.
This, however, isn't necessarily true, says Arthur L. Caplan, PhD and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health. "The FDA process is not slow," Caplan told Men's Health. "If they get positive results they can move fast. Plus, the FDA permits expanded access if something looks safe and promising." This means that if a treatment for say, cancer, looked like it held serious promise, the FDA would expedite the process to make that available to those who need it as soon as possible.
Besides this, Caplan says, there's a rather large conflict of interest pertaining to this particular experiment — money. Traywick is administering a treatment on himself that his own company created. "If they [Ascendance] own the vaccine, then their conflict of interest undermines the claim of a result," he said. This also directly impacts the outcome in the scenario that the drug actually works. "Without objective independent controlled trials, few will believe their claims given their financial interest," Caplan said.
When asked if he believes there's indeed a conflict of interest, Traywick said, "No. We believe that the level of public spotlight and scrutiny placed upon myself and the other members of our team will actually do the opposite."
He thinks that being so public "require[s] us to maintain a level of public transparency rarely — if ever — seen in the context of modern-day research."
While the self-administration of unapproved drugs is on the rise, it's important to remember that there was a reason the FDA was created in the first place. Like any other business, biotech companies ultimately are looking to make money. Caplan thinks moves like Traywick's live self-injection are less about the science and more about getting publicity.
"There is a lot of interest in herpes vaccine, but it’s tough to crack with fringe science by someone trying to make a profit and who lacks independent verification for any claims of a cure," he said, "It looks more like showboating to hype something rather than seriously testing a vaccine."
Men's Health reached out to Traywick, but did not receive a response prior to publication. Traywick reportedly said that he "felt great" after injecting himself with the treatment. The long-term implications, however, are yet to be known.