Josiah Zayner of Oakland publishes a DIY handbook for gene editing and once injects his own arm with DNA while sipping a Scotch at a live event attended by nearly 150,000 people.
Does that make him a criminal?
According to a stern letter released this month by the California Consumer Department, the state is conducting an investigation into Zayner, a popular and provocative bio-purchase, for practicing unlicensed medicine.
This is the first regulatory challenge posed by a NASA scientist who has gained fame by pushing the boundaries of genetic experimentation to do it yourself.
Zayner, whose company sells CRISPR gene modification kits to the public and is advised by Harvard's renowned geneticist, George Church, is stunned by the news and claims that he will fight the allegation.
"I am frustrated to be the target of this investigation," he said. "I have always tried to respect the laws and regulations of the United States, because I really want to help people and not create fake science or drugs."
The state says that a person has filed a lawsuit against Zayner, but a spokesman for the consumer society would not discuss the details or say who filed it. State investigators have requested an interview with Zayner, inviting him to bring in a lawyer.
Under California law, "practice, attempt to practice or advertise for any treatment of the patient, including a diagnosis, operation or prescription of an ailment, defect, defect, condition an illness, disfigurement, disorder, injury or any other physical or mental condition without a valid certificate or authorization. "
Offenses are punishable by a fine of $ 10,000 and up to a year's imprisonment in a county jail.
Zayner's inspired debut of personal computing, while the Homebrew Computer Club and other enthusiasts shared ideas and experiences now legendary.
A molecular biophysicist trained at the University of Chicago, he worked for two years at NASA's Ames space biology synthetic program at Mountain View, where he developed a bacterium that could help transform Mars. in a planet conducive to human life.
Since 2016, he focuses on his company, The Odin. He says his goal is to promote biology to do it yourself in high school classes around the world.
The company's scientific and business advisor is Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, which provides open access information on human genomics, environment and trait data.
Critics say the company's work raises the specter – deeply disturbing for some experts – of a day when dangerous gene editing is carried out far from the eyes of government authorities, posing a risk to the environment or the environment. human health.
His online company was the first to market a simplified version of the CRISPR tool to the general public – a project for the moment more provocative than perilous. The kit has limited applications. Most scientists would agree that its modified bacteria and yeast are rather harmless and lead a short and rather dull life. They can not do much except change their color, smell or live in inhospitable places.
His $ 299 frog editing kit injects a gene-editing fluid into the back of a tree frog, doubling the size of the amphibian in four to five weeks. It does not change future generations; when the frog dies, experience does it too.
At a conference titled SynBioBeta, a meeting of the synthetic biology industry that was held in San Francisco in October 2017, he filled a DNA syringe with the same name. gene editing and injected it into his left arm.
Under applause, shared later on YouTube, Zayner said, "It will change my muscle genes to give me bigger muscles."
Hank Greely, director of the Law and Biosciences Center at Stanford Law School, watched Zayner's work with interest.
"I suppose you may be able to argue against a person for an unauthorized practice of medicine on himself, but a) depends on the wording of the law (which I do not know) and b) why bother you?" He wrote.
"It would not shock me if Josiah had recommended certain things to people so that they could give them medical advice, although I suspect he was cautious in his wording," Greely said.
Zayner states: "I have never given any injection or use to anyone, I have never sold any material meant to treat an illness and I don 't have to say anything about it. I never claimed to provide treatments or remedies because I knew that day would come. "
Angry, he tweeted: "The most explicit part is that so many people die, not because of me, but because the FDA and the government refuse to allow them to access advanced treatments or even, in some cases, to basic health care. Yet I am the one who is threatened with prison. "