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Radio Review: Biohacking – BBC Radio 4

10 September 2018
Appeared in BioNews 966

Recent programmes like Biohacking are what help Radio 4 maintain its place atop my ranking of BBC media outlets. I think I'd pay the licence fee for it alone.

Biohacking is a radio documentary series of five 15-minute episodes. Presented by Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology of the University of Nottingham, the series manages to strike a rare tone. It isn't condescending or overly complicated, but still has a healthy amount of scientific detail, although perhaps towards the complex end for a completely lay audience. Where else can you get scientific content on the BBC fronted calmly without even a hint of Brian Cox?

The term 'hacking' has been widely adopted since its popularisation in the early days of computing. It has now come to denote a sort of playful manipulation of existing systems, with a do-it-yourself ethos. Biohacking is the life sciences extension of this: DIY, do-it-in-your-garage biotechnology. Grab a pipette, some Eppendorfs, a tube or two of cells and off you go. Have a tinker. See what happens.

It's a burgeoning scene, and one that I had some vague notions about before listening to this programme. I'd heard of people fiddling with yeast and making glow-in-the-dark beer at home, and people placing RFID chips that unlock their door under their skin. Novel – maybe cool by some people's standards – but not impressive from a scientific standpoint.

Not anymore. To my surprise, that isn't what this is about. The first episode quickly causes my thoughts of luminous pints to evaporate. A new generation of biohackers have sprung up, with a fresh interest: CRISPR/Cas9, genomics and, well, reckless self-experimentation. The first interviewee describes injecting himself in the stomach with a gene therapy in an attempt to treat his own AIDS. My ears prick up. He did what?

Further along the line, we meet people trying to genome edit their own blood cells, basing their work on preliminary publications and jumping every single ethics hurdle imaginable via self-experimentation. Or people trying to use gene therapy to make their skin glow. Professor Ball wonders if they might be naïve or vain. I have to wonder with him. But that's precisely what makes it fascinating, and I'd recommend listening and making up your own mind.

Despite their naivety, it is these people, with CRISPR in hand, who seem like they have to potential to be genuinely disruptive to the scientific community. The idea of subverting the academic machine is intoxicating to me, as a PhD student. Forgo the supervisor, the drudgery of repeating experiments for publication, ethics boards and follow your dreams.

The series doesn't cover just biohacking. It uses the phenomenon as a lens, charting the rise and development of a number of critical emerging biotechnologies, like CRISPR/Cas9 mentioned above, and bleeding edge DNA sequencing techniques, which have enabled the revolution in genomics and genome editing we see today.

It does so nicely. Professor Ball is clear, concise, articulate and has the tone of a friend explaining something to you down the pub. The need to explain these technologies to understand biohacking is clearly evident. However, due to their complexity, they occasionally end up dominating the programme. Episode two, for instance, does not address biohacking at all but instead only covers genomics and genome editing.

Episode four continues in a similar vein, addressing germline genome editing. To me, this sort of experimentation doesn't feel like it's even vaguely in reach of biohackers; only a limited number of extremely well-funded and equipped labs in the world are capable of achieving it. I struggle to see people establishing IVF clinics in their garage in quite the same way as the experimentation discussed in previous episodes.

Despite my minor gripes, it is 15 minutes of fascinating insight, and is vital listening for any BioNews reader. Professor Ball explores the compelling question of rogue IVF clinics in other countries that use the technology. But I have to wonder – is that really biohacking? Where do we draw the line between biohacking and actual science taking place in privately funded labs? The latter is most certainly not DIY.

Therein lies my only criticism of the series: perhaps it doesn't cover biohacking itself to the degree I had hoped. More probing into the frankly bonkers individuals doing the outlandish self-experimentation, and their motives and backgrounds, would have been welcome. But then a Louis-Theroux-style investigation is a little much to hope for from a short Radio 4 series.

The final episode ties the series together with a consideration of the regulations facing genome editing and biohacking – including coverage of the launch of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report (see BioNews 959). It also provides useful background on the recent European Court of Justice ruling on what constitutes a genetically modified organism.

Biohacking is an excellent and worthwhile listen, more than justifying the hour of your time it will occupy. If you're on the fence, at least listen to episodes four and five. They are wonderfully relevant, and you will appreciate some thoroughly researched, uncompromising, straightforward science communication that I'm surprised and refreshed to discover the BBC is still producing.

Biohacking is available on BBC iPlayer.

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