and thinking of all the ways something
could go wrong,” he says. The day I met
him, Hanley zipped open his cargo pants
to show me three black dots tattooed on
his left thigh, marking the site of one
of the injections. Had the gene therapy
gone haywire, he says, his fail-safe option
was to have the affected tissue surgically
Most often, gene therapy relies on
viruses to shuttle DNA into a person’s
cells. Hanley opted instead for a simpler
method called electroporation. In this
procedure, circular rings of DNA, called
plasmids, are passed into cells using an
electrical current. Once inside, they don’t
become a permanent part of the person’s
chromosomes. Instead, they float inside
the nucleus. And if a gene is coded into
the plasmid, it will start to manufacture
proteins. The effect of plasmids is temporary, lasting at most a few months.
Hanley pored over decade-old studies by a company called VGX Animal
Health that had tried zapping plasmids
into the muscles of cows, dogs with kidney disease, and baby piglets. They’d
explored adding extra copies of the gene
for growth-hormone-releasing hormone
(GHRH)—a molecule that is normally
made in the brain. One of its roles is to
travel to the pituitary gland, where it acts
as a regulator of growth hormone itself,
telling the body to make more. It also
appears to have an array of other roles,
including enhancing the immune system.
“We never did try it in humans, but
from everything that I saw in dogs, cats,
cattle, pigs, and horses, it seems like a
reasonable leap forward,” says Douglas
Kern, a veterinarian who worked at VGX.
“It has very profound positive effects in
Hanley says he designed a plasmid
containing the human GHRH gene on
his computer and then located a scien-
tific supply company that manufactured
the DNA rings for him at a cost of about
$10,000. He showed me two vials of the
stuff he’d brought along in a thermos,
each containing water thickened by half
a milligram of DNA.
In planning his study, Hanley skipped
some steps that most companies developing a drug would consider essential. In
addition to avoiding the FDA, he never
tested his plasmid in any animals. He
did win clearance for the study from the
Institute of Regenerative and Cellular
Medicine in Santa Monica, California,
a private “institutional review board,” or
IRB, that furnishes ethics oversight of
According to Church’s lab, Hanley’s
levels of GHRH appear elevated, suggesting that the treatment may have had an
effect, but it’s too early to say definitively.
So what happens next? The FDA could
get involved, intervening with warning
letters or site visits or auditing his ethics
board. The plastic surgeon—whose name
Hanley asked to keep confidential—could
face questions from California’s medical
board. Or perhaps authorities will simply
look the other way because the only person Hanley put at risk was himself.
The kind of attention he is hoping
for, he says, is from investors—someone
to fund a larger study or perhaps pay for
his treatment. Hanley is proud of what
he’s done. He created a company, secured
patents, made new contacts, identified
a gene therapy that has plausible benefits for people, and offered himself up
as a pioneering volunteer. Doing gene
therapy to yourself, he says, “focuses the
mind, it really does.”
Gene therapy can be done
on the cheap, in the same
setting as a nose job.
“Are you happy?”
— What researchers in Europe, using a novel
brain-machine interface, asked three completely
paralyzed patients. They all said yes.
“This thing that really
and democracy risks
becoming the opposite
— Mark Surman, executive director of the
Mozilla foundation, on its research that shows
the Internet is not open or free enough.
“It will probably disrupt
in vitro fertilization as we
— Eli Adashi, a professor of medical science
at Brown University and researcher on a new
technology that could turn any human cell into
a sperm or egg.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of homes that Tesla says it could power
per day with its new lithium-ion battery storage
facility in California.
7. 8 million
Metric tons of carbon dioxide that the
construction of a wall on the Mexican border
will emit, according to the Institute for
Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the
University of Bath.
Drop in average hourly earnings of taxi drivers in
cities after Uber arrived, according to a study by
the University of Oxford.
Amount of money that Snapchat, which plans to
go public, lost in 2016.