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This biohacking company is testing drugs on itself

Ascendance Biomedical develops experimental compounds for people who want to be their own guinea pigs.

Activist and software engineer Tristan Roberts injected himself with a chemical solution last year that he hoped would modify his genetic code to cure him of HIV — and he live-streamed the entire process on Facebook.

Roberts’s public self-experiment drew a new wave of attention to the practice of biohacking, an ill-defined term that means, in essence, conducting biological research outside institutions like universities and pharmaceutical companies. For example, the gene therapy Roberts self-administered wasn't approved by the FDA; it was an experimental compound developed by a tiny startup called Ascendance Biomedical.

Ascendance Biomedical's business model is based on a regulatory loophole: It’s illegal to market something as medicine if it hasn’t been approved by the FDA, but chemical research compounds, typically used in science experiments, are openly bought and sold all the time. And legally speaking, people are free to test these compounds on themselves.

Like any other startup, however, infighting plagues Ascendance Biomedical, and employees' philosophical divisions reveal a deeper rift in the biohacking community. Some are motivated by a desire to subvert the drug approval process they believe big pharma and profit have corrupted, while others are simply entrepreneurs at heart.

This segment originally aired April 10, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.