See below for our interview with Zayner, a year after the experiment. Future of You first met the mid-30s, erstwhile NASA Ames bio-researcher, upon the launch of his business, providing in-home CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing kits to the public. That was controversial enough.
Then last May, Zayner, who has suffered from ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and frequent diarrhea that have not responded well to conventional treatments, decided to take matters into his own hands -- or guts -- in an attempt to replace his microbiome and mitigate his bad GI problems.
Bacteria are "almost an extension of you that can be helpful or harmful," Zayner says. "It's like this moving cloud that comes with you wherever you go. We and bacteria are like one organism."
Watch the video and you'll see him replacing part of that organism by taking antibiotics to eradicate his own bacteria, then ingesting the feces of a friend ("Yolo," he says at the moment of truth, the biohacker equivalent of "Down the hatch.") He also swabbed his body and mouth with a saline solution containing the donor's bacteria.
Fecal transplants are now an accepted therapy for a certain type of infection. The thing is, Zayner didn't bother to test his donor's sample. That puts him at risk, as the documentary warns, for "transference of parasites and pathogens, and even blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis.”
"Sometimes there’s this thin line, you know, between being crazy and being knowledgeable," Zayner admits. "And I can’t tell.”
The Verge covered the experiment at the time. Writer Arielle Duhaime-Ross thought the process was less than scientifically rigid:
I couldn’t help but notice Zayner cutting corners. After drying off, he put on a brand-new Hanes white T-shirt to prevent his old microbiome from recolonizing his body, but an old — though freshly laundered — pair of jeans. He sampled his arms, nose, and mouth, but he didn’t bother to take microbial samples from his genitalia, and didn’t plan on applying Michael’s skin bacteria to his penis or testicles. He told me that there just isn’t much scientific value in gathering that information. Over the course of his experiment, Zayner would only take a third of the poop pills that someone undergoing a standard FMT [Fecal Microbiota Transplantation] procedure would, stretched over a longer period of time.
Says a podcaster from The Verge: "This guy is doing something that is legitimately dangerous and probably kind of stupid."
The experiment, according to Zayner, as well as genetic sequencing from an independent lab, was at least a partial success. (But need we say it: Don't try this at home.)
Now that about a year has passed, we wanted to catch up with Zayner to see how he's feeling about his health, the procedure and his critics. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
In the video, that did not look too fun.
Yeah. The original plan wasn't to have people document it. I was going to document it myself. But other people got involved, including a reporter and the people who made the documentary. So in the hotel room there's like four other people that you can't see who are badgering me with questions, taking pictures, and I'm just like 'Oh my gosh, I just feel sick. Can't you people leave me alone?' "
How are you feeling now?
I was really amazed by the results. There's been no blood in my stool since the transplant, which just kind of blows me away; prior to the transplant it had been multiple times a week.
While the transfer of the gut microbes seemed to be successful , the bacteria in your skin and nasal passages were unchanged. Why do you think that is?
I think I was recolonized by my own bacteria when I got back home to my own apartment.
Have you noticed any personality or mood changes?
I asked people close to me to say if they saw any changes. It doesn't seem like there's anything aside from an addiction-level sugar craving. I've never encountered a craving like this. At first I didn't fight against it. I'd go to the grocery store and find myself buying 50 candy bars.
Does your donor friend have a sweet-tooth?
I asked him if he had sugar cravings, too, and he said, "I could eat a box of Oreos in one sitting."
Have any microbiome researchers reached out to you?
A ton, but none of them want me to mention their name or talk about them publicly -- people from MIT, UCLA, Harvard, University of Chicago, UC Irvine, UC Davis, the FDA. They might be a little bit critical, but they're mostly interested.
Have you heard of other people trying this? Is that a concern, or even a hope of yours?
It is a little bit of a concern, because what I did was pretty drastic. I wasn't just trying to do a fecal transplant. I was trying to do a whole-body microbiome transplant.
You weren't just trying to supplement, you were trying to wipe out and replace...
A lot of people focused just on the fecal transplant. And that was the thing that provided the greatest benefit to me and worked. But I was also trying as hard as I could to wipe out all of the bacteria on my body and in my body, which -- most people thought I would either die or end up hospitalized, which is crazy. That didn't happen.
But were you worried about safety?
Based upon my planning, I thought the chances of something bad happening were pretty small. But when you have a lot of people around...mostly the people who were documenting it were really worried about a lot of things. Their attitude rubbed off on me and I got more and more worried.
The donor's samples -- why didn't you have those tested for things that could be dangerous?
I really thought about that. A part of it might have been foolhardy, but part of me was like the whole purpose of this experiment was to create an idea of how somebody could do something like this. A lot of people don't have access to getting donors tested.
I thought the process I went through was pretty stringent. If you go to OpenBiome, the website that takes fecal transplants from people and they freeze them to give to people, they have a questionnaire you can fill out to see if you qualify as a donor. It's pretty extensive and it's something I mimicked.
The major things that you're probably worried about are more blood-borne diseases and illnesses. People always say you should be afraid of feces because of hemorrhagic E. coli. Honestly, I don't think there is anybody who has hemorrhagic E. coli colonizing them and doesn't know about it. So I wasn't too concerned about that.
Maybe this sounds crazy, but there is a certain amount of trust that you want to be able to place in humanity or other people.
The donor was also your friend.
Totally. It was kind of symbolic in that way. If I can't trust this person, then we're all screwed.
You said you want this kind of experiment to be accessible to people. Is that because you want people to be able to understand it easily, or do you see this as a prototype?
Kind of a prototype, but you have to understand, I don't recommend this to people.
The position I'm in right now is really strange where I've become this "biohacker" figure. I get contacted by a ton of people all the time, and a lot of those are people with medical issues. And they have no treatment, no cure, and they're just looking for help. They're looking for some way they can treat themselves.
The U.S. unfortunately has decided to not allow doctors to prescribe feces to people for any disease other than Clostridium difficile infections that haven't been able to be treated with antibiotics.
To me, that's kind of disturbing. And the fact that people have the opportunity to seek treatment themselves, I think, is empowering. So what I really wanted to do was say, "Hey look, I tried to do something in a very scientific way. And I'm not saying it works, I'm not saying it'll work for you or your disease or cure your ailments at all. But maybe you can also try to take your health into your own hands. Maybe if there's no hope from the medical community, no hope for cures, you can perhaps figure out something on your own -- through experimentation, through reading scientific papers -- and help yourself.
The podcasters at The Verge had some pretty harsh words for you. What did you think about that?
You know, I understand from a professional point of view what they were trying to do. But some of the stuff they said just cracked me up.
They said that what I was doing was stupid -- which is hilarious when you're talking about a person who is suffering from something. It's like, "Hey, you're suffering from some problem and I think you trying to help yourself is the stupidest thing you could do."
They don't know what it's like when you have to go to the bathroom five times in an hour and blood is spewing out of your butt and you're in terrible pain.
People always bring up this issue about whether what I did was "scientific" or not. That critique is very dogmatic about the way that science is or should be done. What's important about what I did was whether it works or not, right? I mean, if this actually worked, why wouldn't people be interested? And look, I'm not trying to publish any of this, I'm not trying to have it peer-reviewed in any normal terms.
But you would like it if people took a look at what you did and said, 'Maybe there's something here.'
Yeah, but I think they know there is. There are clinics oversees, in the UK and other places that actually will give fecal transplants to people suffering from gastrointestinal illness. It's something interesting that in the U.S. isn't allowed.
We reached out to a handful of microbiome researchers for their thoughts on Zayner's experiment. One, Owen White from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, responded.
"If I had a molecular biology background and was suffering from problems like Josiah, I would find it irresistible not to want to at least try some type of intervention on myself," wrote White in an email.
"(T)here is something inherently deserving about exerting your own agency over things that you cannot ordinarily control," White said. "That being said, I strongly agree with all the criticisms that were shown in the video."