Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review of Biopunk

Biopunk is a book discussing biological research that isn't conducted in traditional research setting (like an academic lab or a pharmaceutical company).  The book covers a wide variety of topics such as a philosophical discussion about what motivates good scientists, how legal and political decisions affect scientific progress, and recent developments in the field of "DIY bio" (where the book mostly focuses on personalized medicine and synthetic biology).  Throughout the book, Wohlsen also provides several cool factoids, like the Bridges of Cherrapunji that are engineered from living tree roots.

One chapter focuses on DTC genetic testing, where Wohlesen provides both an overview of this industry as well as accounts of individuals who have utilized DTC testing.  For example, Raymond McCauley conducted his own DIY bio research on metabolites in his own blood in order to try and better understand his 23andMe result indicating an increased risk for macular degeneration.  Although Wohlesen acknowledges "McCauley did not hesitate to concede that the results do not show anything conclusive," I think this is a very cool example of how DIY Bio can help inquisitive scientists try to learn more about themselves outside a formal research setting.

My subsequent research on Raymond McCauley also led me to learn more about, which provides tools to help users further analyze their 23andMe data for health risk, drug response, and athletic performance for individual SNPs.  In some ways, this reminded me of the new, free Interpretome tool, but Interpretome can load my 23andMe data more quickly and with a more streamlined interface.  Nevertheless, I think it's good to know that this option is out there.

There were also a few aspects of the book that disappointed me.  For example, many accounts of biopunk research seem to focus more on buying used lab equipment off craigslist or eBay than new technological developments that can help democratize research.  It also seemed like a lot of the "biopunks" were pretty well-educated and not necessarily good examples of what I would consider amateur scientific research.  Also, I was somewhat disappointed at how difficult it was to additional information on some of the start-ups / organizations that were mentioned in the book (which has only been out for a few months).

For example, the chapter "Cancer Kitchen" discusses how John Schloendorn and Eri Gentry studied the role that the immune system played in cancer using Schloendorn's own cancer cells, which led the creation of DIY nonprofit called Livly to develop cancer immunotherapies (and Gentry later co-founded BioCurious, another DIY nonprofit).  However, the Livly website described in the book is no longer hosted on the internet (the old url, provided on the Livly facebook page, now links to an unrelated website).  Likewise, BioCurious only seems to have a facebook page with limited information.  Even with limited funding, the company can at least create a free Google Sites website (like my personal website) in order to more effectively convey information about the company.

I was also very interested in learning more about the Pink Army Cooperative (a DIY drug company attempting to deliver personalized treatments for breast cancer).  This time, I was able to find a generally well-designed and informative website, but I couldn't find much information about concrete research accomplishments (to be fair though, Wohlsen does warn readers that "so far, Pink Army is more a concept than an actual co-op").

Although it was frustrating that I couldn't learn much more about these specific non-profits, Biopunk has successfully encouraged me to learn more about the DIY bio movement.  Who knows, maybe I'll even stop by a meeting for my  local DIYbio chapter!

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