The summer of the mobs and the elites

And all the biotech news you missed while you were doomscrolling

Hey, how’s it going? Welcome back to the regularly scheduled weekly edition of Sex, Drugs, and Biotech! 💜

In the heat of the chaotic headlines, I took the summer slowly—or at least tried to—and enjoyed some space from this hellhole we love to hate: the internet. But, September smells like a new season to me this year. The kids are back in classrooms newly fashioned as medical-social-psychological experiments, and pumpkin spice fills supermarket aisles as masked yoga moms listen to the White Lotus soundtrack on repeat and partake in the only kind of socially acceptable indoor cardio workout. So I’m back to the grind, and back in your inbox.

Here’s what you missed this summer from the world of pharma, synbio, and health policy.


Aging had a big summer

Two leading researchers dominated headlines.

Harvard genetics researcher, biotech founder, and proponent of intermittent fasting David Sinclair has been on a whirlwind promotional bender. His internet tour included an interview with Immortalists Magazine, a handful of celebrity podcast episodes, including Joe Rogan and Danica Patrick, and a mention in the New York Post.

Popular Mechanics reported that one of Sinclair’s spin-off companies, MetroBiotech, is working on a clinical trial with US Special Operations Command to test a “nutraceutical” pill (aka a dietary supplement) that slows aging. The magazine points out that “(FDA) doesn’t regulate nutraceuticals, meaning they’re exempted from the rigorous standards that help to regulate prescription drugs, for example.” Sinclair confirmed the news on his Instagram page.

But it was the end of the summer when things really heated up for followers of aging research: Radical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey was accused by two former SENS colleagues of sexual misconduct, which sent transhumanist and immortalist social media circles into a dizzying frenzy of denial and “innocent until proven guilty!” posts that were, frankly, upsetting. Here are the original blog posts by Laura Deming and Celine Halioua. Here is coverage in Stat. De Grey has been posting on his personal Facebook page, denying the charges.


Can synbio win at Wall Street?

Zymergen gave investors whiplash after its stock tanked immediately following its IPO. The company attempted to course correct with a CEO swap and a promise to actually produce a product in 2022 (maybe). Following this, Antonio Regalado asked in a widely discussed piece, is Ginkgo Bioworks worth $15 billion?

I actually can’t keep track of all the food startups in synbio right now. This is a good list by Sofia Sanchez.

What if biohackers injected themselves with mRNA? In a fictional future, a group of biohackers write a manifesto demanding the right to edit themselves however they want.

Synbio’s biggest student competition, iGEM, could do a lot to improve biosecurity procedures and practices, something we desperately need to keep a better eye on… but, you know, without creating another terrifying federal database.

I was depressed about not being able to safely attend DEFCON this year, but I did still make an appearance at the Biohacking Village with Christi Guerrini. Here’s that talk:


US healthcare verging on total meltdown

You may have noticed that the FDA endured a full collapse of public confidence in its mission. Melody Schreiber’s article “What the $%&! Is Going On at the FDA?” asked the question we’re all asking ourselves and The Atlantic pointed out that “The FDA is a Melting Iceberg.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say, please burn down the FDA and start over. But pandemic stuff aside, the rest of the country’s health infrastructure isn’t doing much better.

No one is surprised that after decades of women using prescription pills to safely have abortions, medical abortions prescribed via telehealth during the pandemic were also safe. But as abortion bans go into effect and the Supreme Court gears up to tear human rights down, we need this immediately.

As everyone’s mental health deteriorates, the digital mental health industrial complex is growing. Relatedly, psilocybin can help alleviate depression, but its use is being blocked by the DEA and it’s really expensive.

Holy moly, there are a lot of women-led companies popping up. Hey Jane and Choix offer (safe, see above) medical abortions. Maven is a clinic for women, by women. Alfie is trying to make IVF accessible with AI (unsure about this one…) And Adyn aims to be “earth's most inclusive and patient-centric personalized medicine company.” What do all these companies have in common besides trying to fill holes in establishment medicine? I found out about them from either Andy Coravos or Deena Shakir—follow them if you’re not already.

Google Health is reorganizing again, which just reinforces a longtime suspicion that Big Tech isn’t going to deliver on their promise to solve healthcare without wasting a bunch of money and screwing a bunch of people in the process, if at all.

Patients with terminal orphan diseases aren’t getting access to experimental medicines.

“This idea that you have to wait until the research is done is baloney,” said Jess Rabourn, CEO of WideTrial to KHN. “We’re talking about patients who are going to die if they’re told to wait.”


WHO says no to designer babies

In July, the WHO released a long-awaited report on heritable genome editing, which basically just says, “Don’t do it yet!”

However, when the time is right to start making designer babies, the WHO has a list of recommendations and a governance framework that includes “the establishment of a registry for clinical trials and basic research, and for coordinated systems for whistleblowing.” It was a BFD that generated a lot of Twitter threads, commentary, and editorials that mostly got buried by Covid news.

I get that we’re kind of preoccupied at the moment with the pandemic, but someone is going to get the crazy idea of making a Covid-immune embryo really soon, so it’s worth creating infrastructure to prevent that.

The good news is, the babies we’ve already got might be able to access gene editing soon. A Boston Children’s partnership with ElevateBio could move some gene therapies into clinical testing, reports BioPharmaDive. Also, a landmark CRISPR trial has hopes up for more positive gene therapy news.

Stay tuned for updates in next week’s newsletter about the upcoming Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee meeting.


Extra Credit:

Another article about Open Insulin. Medicine for all! Hackaday

Pay academics for journal articles. Business Insider

There is an infodemic we’re ignoring about the promise of stem cells. Axios

Biomedicine will transform the way humans reproduce. The Scientist

This summer saw the return of a snarktastic digital news website, and depending on your opinion of Peter Thiel, please join me in celebrating the resurrection. Gawker

Life in space sounds great right now. Get me off this rock! MIT News

Does the FDA manipulate the media? A great Twitter thread by @cgseife

One more time for the capitalists in the back: pharmaceutical patents are harmful. Nature

How will we ever learn to love GMOs? New York Times

The UK is planning a $1 billion infusion into the biotech sector 🎉. Endpoints

This is the end of summer as we’ve known it. LA Times

See you next week! If you like this email, tweet it, share it, and forward it! -AP