Last year, biotech start-up Minicircle started recruiting participants for a clinical trial of gene therapy. But several details made it unusual. For one, it instructed would-be guinea pigs to purchase an NFT to take part, before being paid in cryptocurrency. Another is it would take place in what is essentially an experimental crypto city – Próspera, Honduras.
It’s against this unusual backdrop that Minicircle is trying to lead biohacking’s charge into the mainstream – studying gene therapies that target familiar conditions like muscular disorders, HIV, low testosterone, and obesity.
But medical ethics experts are less enthusiastic – and are concerned about how the trials will move forward, and what they could mean for the burgeoning and sometimes unscrupulous medical tourism industry.
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Last March, Minicircle posted an advert to recruit participants for a clinical trial of gene therapy. Several details made it unusual. For one, it instructed would-be guinea pigs to purchase an NFT to take part. A nonfungible token (“NFT”) is essentially a one-of-a-kind digital trading card that can also serve as proof of ownership for a physical or digital object. While some medical researchers have proposed that NFTs could be used to track patient consent for medical trials, Minicircle didn’t respond to questions about exactly what role they’ll play here.
Registered in Delaware, Minicircle opened its first gene therapy clinic in Próspera, which is formally administered as a Zone for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDE) in Honduras. Próspera is an aspiring libertarian paradise born from controversial legislation that has allowed international businesses to carve off bits of Honduras and establish their own micronations.
Próspera has pulled in investment from Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund, he was the first outside investor in Facebook – and Marc Andreessen – co-founder of Netscape, co-founder of Ning and sits on the board of Facebook. It is managed by an international group of libertarians, although they reject this label, claiming instead to champion a nonideological manifesto of freedom and prosperity. It’s a radical experiment that is allowing a private company to take on the role of the state. It implements its own laws designed to stoke financial experimentation and, more recently, medical innovation.
Minicircle aims to fuse elements of the traditional drug testing path with the ethos of “biohackers” – medical mavericks who proudly dabble in self-experimentation and have long hailed the promise of DIY gene therapies.
It is trying to lead biohacking’s charge into the mainstream, or at least somewhere near it – studying gene therapies that target familiar conditions like muscular disorders, HIV, low testosterone, and obesity and doing so with the backing of tech moguls and under the purview of bespoke “innovation-friendly” regulation. It ultimately aims to democratise access to gene therapies, with an emphasis on discovering the right nucleic cocktail to promote longevity.
“I think the potential of the minicircle technology is radically transformative and beneficial for everyone on Earth,” Minicircle’s founder and CEO, Mac (short for Machiavelli) Davis said, referring to the company’s key technique for delivering gene therapy into people’s cells. “The keys to immortality: we’ve already discovered some of them. Our choice is just whether … to try it out and not be hampered by fear and regulation.”
Thiel, who has pumped millions into longevity research and has said the possibility of injecting himself with the blood of young people is “really interesting,” has invested directly in Minicircle.
Most scientists are less than enthusiastic about Minicircle’s undertaking, expressing scepticism about its methods and aims, while experts in medical ethics are concerned about how the trials will move forward – and what they could mean for the burgeoning and sometimes unscrupulous medical tourism industry.
At least one prominent scientist sees a potential upside to growth in the biohacking space: George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has previously consulted on biohacking endeavours, tells me he welcomes the evolution of biohacking self-experimentation into full-blown clinical trials. He isn’t familiar with Minicircle’s work specifically, but he says of the general premise, “As long as nothing goes wrong, it could herald a revolution in cost reduction.”
That, of course, is a big caveat.
If Davis’s lofty aspirations aren’t realised, Minicircle’s endeavours may at least open up a new frontier for consumer-marketed gene therapies, in the mould of the thriving market for unlicensed (and potentially risky) stem-cell therapies.
Read the full article ‘This biohacking company is using a crypto city to test controversial gene therapies’ published by MIT Technology Review HERE.
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