A biohacker programmer who has grown rich in bitcoins plans to create designer babies

Brian Bishop's keyboard in Austin, Texas,literally smoked. Recognized nationwide as a high-speed typewriter, he prepared a polite request to a famous futurologist from the UK. I wanted to get advice about my startup design babies. For several years, the 29-year-old programmer and bitcoin investor left many comments on the Internet about the "improvement" of a person. He is a transhumanist, that is, he believes that people can be improved with the help of technology. He has long been urging the rest to do something with the current state of the people.

And so, he decided to do it yourself.

Designer Babies: Genetically Modified Children

In May, Bishop and his business partner Max Berry,a former researcher at a biotechnology company, "opened a company focused on the production of designer babies and human germline genetic engineering." He noted that “the laboratory work has begun” and “we already have the first client in the person of the parent”.

He said he wanted ethical advice,to support outstanding geneticist George Church of Harvard University, whose list of potential genetic improvements — a list of genes including PCSK9 and CCR5, presented in dozens of reports — was named the “wish list” of the postman era.

Bishop hopes to bring these opportunities toreality. A copy of his business proposal states that his enterprise plans to allow parents to have transgenic children who can “build muscle without weightlifting”, who will have long-lived genes or AB + blood, that is, with the ability to receive transfusions from anyone.

In November, a Chinese biophysicist announced that he had createdfirst babies with edited genes. This news triggered a global resonance and led to tough measures by China against the scientist. Since the He Jiangkuya initiative was uncovered, science leaders were quick to comment on unethical research. Some wished to impose a moratorium on the creation of genetically modified children. Others say that the necessary detailed technical criteria and medical recommendations so that IVF embryos can be changed safely and for purposes that the medical community agrees with. Gene editing specialists from China, the United States and the United Kingdom are planning to create another committee that will control all this.

While new guidelines andpublic censures can keep under control professional scientists with government grants, they do not hold back people like Bishop, “relatively well-known self-taught biohackers” (as written in his resume), who spends thousands of dollars promoting their own vision of creating genetic superpowers in newborns.

A few weeks ago Antonio Regalado, reporterMIT Technology Review, has received several fundraising slides outlining Bishop’s business proposal: predicting billions in revenues from the creation of hundreds of thousands of improved children. The one who sent the slides wished to remain anonymous, but could not express confidence that “nonsense” is this or “terribly plausible.” The man expressed his fear that transhumanists are ready to translate these ideas into reality and decided to rip the denunciation of Bishop.

According to Bishop's slides, designer people willnot to be created as it was in China, by injecting molecules that edit genes into the egg at the time of fertilization. Instead, in the process of biohacking, gene therapy will be performed on the testicles of a male volunteer. Thus, sperm containing DNA with enhancements can be used to fertilize a woman. According to the plan, Bishop and Berry decided that with $ 2 million, they could quickly move from animal testing to the first volunteer. “The result: the first person with transgenic sperm, and we are starting to collect pre-orders,” according to a funding slide.

"I think this is pretty muchan erroneous and deeply disturbing approach to the genetic modification of people, ”says Gunes Taylor, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, who also read the proposal. "It is also extremely alarming that they claim that they already have the first participant."

Others say that this idea borders on absurdity. For example, these two entrepreneurs say that their targeted market is “the whole future of mankind,” and they propose a plan to spread the gene therapy virus, which contains all the cumbersome useful information about genetic instructions. “My reaction is that I wonder if I should take this seriously at all,” said Samuel Sternberg, an associate professor at Columbia University. He wonders if Bishop’s real goal is not provocative and in the spotlight.

Other people familiar with Bishop’s plans are alsothey think that this is mostly empty talk, but perhaps there is something behind them. “This is much less advanced than that of Jiankuya He, who had substantial capital and knew what he was doing,” said Church, a Harvard genetic engineer who spoke to Bishop. Church admits that the sperm approach is technically feasible, but will require "significant debugging."

"It could definitely happen - so weneed to talk about it. " A geneticist who holds a consulting position in a large number of companies and genetic enterprises, says he would not agree to such a role in the case of Bishop. He told Bishop to seek ethics advice and get FDA approval, as well as conduct proper clinical trials. “I give advice to almost anyone, especially if I think he needs it,” Church says.

Bitch dude

Bishop and Berry during a telephone interviewrefused to name a potential client or say whether one of them plans to become a volunteer. Bishop — with a barrel shape and two meters tall — said he would like to include a weight control gene in improvements. The men said that they had just started preliminary animal studies and did not come close to trying to have a baby. Bishop says it will take several years. “We have not yet taken on people, but we believe that this is ethical,” he says. “People are now hunting for witches. I'm afraid they won't find them. ”

Bishop is already well known in the field of cryptocurrency: until recently, he worked on LedgerX, a bitcoin exchanger, and even added a couple of lines of code to the basic software on which this digital currency works. However, his most visible public roles are the mediator: he moderated discussion forums, appeared at conferences, published transcripts. He shorthand all telephone conversations. Noah Horn, administrator of Type Racer, an online typing contest, says that Bishop is "in the lead among all English-speaking machinists in the world" with a typing speed of 173.66 words per minute.

"I describe him as the person closest toartificial intelligence in human form, ”says Andrew Hessel, CEO of Humane Genomics, a start-up gene therapy company that says Bishop has known it for several years. "He is a ghost in the car."

For the first time, Regalado met Bishop in May.years at a scientific conference called Genome Project – Write, organized by Church at Harvard Medical Campus. This meeting brought together people interested in futuristic applications of genetic engineering. Bishop told him that he was working on a project for design babies, but Regalado was most attracted by his participation in Bitcoin - then it costs $ 9,072 per coin. He could be indecently rich already then. There was a great logic in paying for CRISPR bitcoins.

There was no reason at the time to treat Bishoptoo serious. But that changed after the news from China. Hardly anyone expected the first CRISPR kids to appear so soon. Now it is obvious that the chance to improve the human genome is very attractive. Chinese researcher Heh ignored the advice of some colleagues who warned him not to continue. At the same time, there were tacit approval signals. This summer, the UK's leading ethics council disagreed with the conventional wisdom, issuing a report saying that there is nothing wrong with trying to “influence” the abilities, bodies or views of children by changing their DNA.

Some Kulibin enthusiasts from the world of biologythey also do not believe that governments need to interfere in what is happening with human genomes, and some of them also began to apply untested gene therapy themselves. These experiments were, for the most part, useless and designed to attract attention. One of the entrepreneurs who stuck a syringe full of DNA into his thigh was later found dead in a sensory deprivation chamber. The other, Josiah Seiner, injected himself with “genes-editing ingredients” during a conference in San Francisco in 2017.

In short, in the biohackers community the idea ofThat someone might try to change their own sperm-producing cells would not be strange. “If Brian said he intended to modify another person, I would say no, you're crazy,” says Hessel. "But if he wanted to do this with himself, I would say: well, okay ...".

Mississippi sperm

Regalado was never able to determine whetherBishop on the state of the bitcoins. He said that he “earned and lost millions of dollars” on a volatile digital currency, but he was skeptical about the time when the coins were cheaper, perhaps losing the chance for a real digital revolution. However, he remains a highly paid programmer who can earn $ 600 per hour or more.

That means Bishop has more money thanother biologists who are engaged in genetic activity, and he can direct their efforts by buying equipment for them or giving them work. “Many biohackers have a rather modest past,” says Zeiner, manager of The Odin, which sells CRISPR kits to enthusiasts for $ 159. "He paid other biohackers to work for him."

One person Bishop recently providedwork, is David Ishi, an oil worker from Mississippi and a dog breeder who got into the news for trying to genetically modify dogs. Working in a barn that became a laboratory, Ishi mixed the DNA of jellyfish and sperm of mastiffs in the hope of creating glowing puppies. He has not yet succeeded, despite the insemination of at least six dogs with modified sperm.

Ishi said that after meeting with Bishop andBerry, he also tried to add DNA constructs to his own sperm sample. It was Bishop who sent money through PayPal to all the necessary reagents. "He paid me some fluorescent DNA staining kits," says Ishi. “It's a couple hundred dollars. It's expensive for me. It was like, "if you need something, let me know." Of course, I never tried to impregnate anyone with this, ha ha. ”

Based on his experience with dogs, Ishisays that an amateur biologist has no chance of making a designer child working on a weekend. “Is homemade biology approaching the creation of CRISPR kids? Not even close, ”he says. "But if any rich man pays a scientist for his work, it will happen."

"We must not talk about Brian, but about the invisible sulfurareas of the gray biotechnology market where people with resources can get their way. Can Bishop and Berry cope? I have no idea. Obviously, they will need a woman. I think they planned it. Because the question: do you want a mutant child - a strange beginning for a conversation. ”

Laboratory in Ukraine

Bishop and Berry pay for Ukrainian serviceslaboratories where they conduct research experiments on mice. It is part of the Institute of Gerontology of the Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine in Kiev. A virtual tour for Regalado was conducted by Dmitry Krasniyenkov via Skype.

Bishop organized the tour after hisasked to demonstrate the scientific basis of his project. Krasnienkov, dressed in white clothes, carried his laptop through rooms with lasers, micromanipulators and cell growing zones. Later he said that this place is shared between the institute and the private company Geron, which explores telomerase, the biomarker of aging (not to be confused with the same American company).

“This is a sleep box in which we can sleep during experiments,” says Krasniyenkov, turning the webcam.

“Wi-Fi coverage in the lab is pretty good,” notes Bishop. He was also interested in the tour, because he had never been to Ukraine. He paid for the experiments, passing Bitcoins to Europeans.

“We are conducting operations here,” continued the Ukrainian.

Previously, Bishop sent Regalado a photo of the revealed one.the mouse lying on the substrate of the microscope, as well as a close-up of the trace dyes injected into the testicles. Krasnienkov said that by now the experiments have been carried out on about 30 mice. In several cases, researchers had limited success with the inclusion of genetic material in the testicles of animals. This can be done by inserting invisible DNA chains and applying electric shock so that the cells that produce sperm take on the genetic burden. So far no transgenic mice have been created.

During the dialogue, Krasnienkov said that notready to see people changed through sperm until more research is done. “I do not want anyone to do it in a hurry; I do not want to do quickly. "

Unanswered letters

Since Regalado’s first conversation with BishopDecember, he and Berry began to doubt the approach with a change of sperm. Berry, who holds a bachelor's degree in biology, believes that they should adapt the Velocimouse methodology invented by the New York biotechnology company as a quick way to create mice with non-standard DNA. This method will include the treatment of human embryo IVFs: first, the removal of stem cells, and then, after performing genetic manipulations with them, their introduction into the second embryo. That would be a radical way to make a human child.

You can close your eyes to the attempts of Bishop and Berry,as they may fail. But to keep people interested in creating designer babies will be difficult. “Will the FDA begin to stick in the wheels if we provide parents with this technology in a private setting with parental consent?” - asks Berry. “I expect that there will be legal battles that, I hope, we will be able to finance and support.” Currently, the creation of genetically modified children would be illegal in the United States, but in other countries - the same Ukraine - the conditions are not so strict. Bishop is skeptical about the laws - he learned this lesson by working with bitcoins, digital currency, not controlled by any central bank.

In general, the scientific community reacted negatively toexperiments in China, but biohackers like Bishop and Seiner believe that Heh didn’t deserve it, because he tried to take the obvious next step in human history. During the international summit in Hong Kong in November, when Xe was explained to people, Bishop was among the million people who watched this scientific event online.

Bishop said that none of the specialists inthe ethics to which he sent the letters did not answer him. Anders Sandberg, a futurologist who Bishop asked for advice last May, says he had to answer. “I frankly say that improvement can be a good thing and that is indeed the goal of medicine,” says Sandberg. However, he believes that programmers like Bishop suffer from a kind of pride. “For them, everything looks like code. These are just letters - can they be complicated? But most biologists know that these poor guys will find that things are not so simple. ”

"Brian doesn't seem crazy to me - I think heman of sense. If he has a company that offers something, he must show that he can provide it, and it will be difficult. If I wanted to apply this technology on my child, it should be documented very well; I don't want to be the father of the guinea pig. It will be difficult to prove that it works. I really hope that we can get the right designer babies, but if you do it too early or too bad, it will lead to a negative reaction. We are not ready for this. ”

In the end, Regalado wondered whatBishop's motives. He spoke openly about his ideas, but fell silent when asked about his family. No one knows why he became so deeply obsessed with human perfection. Bishop said his motivation is very complex.

And added:

"Let's assume that I was bitten by a radioactive science fiction writer?"

Do I need to deal with this?

Vladimir Kishinets, Ph.D., coordinator of the Russian Association of Futurologists, shared his opinion:

“Of course, with all the underground, illegal it is necessary to fight. It is necessary to protect good citizens from crooks, charlatans, irresponsible adventurers.

But it is equally important that no one speaks ignorant,fainting at the sight of the letters GMO, in the most active way to develop domestic genetic cell biology. Here one cannot lag behind, these are the highest technologies, this is the cure of the most severe diseases, this is, in perspective, the extension of youth and human life. This is the future. Nobody promised that it would be simple, but one should not be late in it. ”

And the personal opinion “not as an expert, but as a woman” was presented by Natalia Seraya, from LeadRoom lead generation agency:

“Yes, if only they would give me the opportunity to save my unborn child from the diseases that could come to him from his parents, grandparents and other ancestors!

Give birth to one hundred percent healthy child! And do not play this lottery with biology. Because now it’s a wild rand: neighbors thumps day and night, drank up all health, but at the same time “do” and give birth to absolutely healthy children. And many acquaintances have been leading healthy lifestyles for years, they drink vitamins, and then the child - voila - with cerebral palsy or something similar. The question arises - what the fuck, nature? This is real biological terrorism! Sorry for the emotions.

Healthy children and then healthy adults are benefits for the economy, for the whole society. ”

As you can see, not everything is so simple.

What do you think? Do I need to deal with such manifestations of self-made biology? Tell us in our chat in Telegram.