Biologist to develop ‘transgenic tobacco plants’ for trans people to grow sex hormones at home

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Tobacco leaves
A woman sorts tobacco leaves at a processing plant in the valley of Vinales, in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, January 28, 2015. Picture taken January 28, 2015. Reuters/Pilar Olivares

Transgender people may soon take do-it-yourself supplements using genetically modified tobacco plants, which they can grow in their homes to produce gender hormones like estrogen and testosterone. This comes from a project of a biologist to develop transgenic tobacco plants due to lack of access of many people to the healthcare they need.

The biologist and artist from Baltimore in the US, Ryan Hammond, is aiming to produce supplements easier with the genetically modified plants, Motherboard reports. He found tobacco essential for the project due to earlier discoveries of the capacity of the plant to produce pharmaceuticals.

The project comes from the growing concern that some doctors might be transphobic and many experts lack the experience and skills to provide patients the necessary medication.

Tobacco plants have already been used to produce collagen, hemoglobin and Ebola vaccines. Hammond will insert genes into the tobacco using plant pathogen Agrobacterium.

The first round of the tobacco products will not be distributed until determined safe for human trials. Hammond wants to refine the process based on its prototype to make the plants safe for human consumption.

Hammond has a background in art and has been exploring synthetic biology and new techniques in a community biohacking lab in Baltimore called BUGSS. The biologist has launched a crowdfunding to raise US$22,000 (approx. AU$30,231) for the project, covering his training, lab access and living costs for a year at Pelling Lab in Ottawa, Canada.

“I am trying to bring these tools into the hands of people who are actually consumers of the product,” he told Motherboard. “A lot of people will have to drive 200 miles to the trans clinic, which is not ideal. For general health care it’s good to have your provider somewhat close so you are not long-distance managing this.”

However, Hammond has received messages from people raising concerns over his project. He noted that he has already consulted with government entities, including FBI agents, and received feedback that the project of at-home biohacking is legal.

The biologist is planning to consult people working in the synthetic biology field to secure a safe process to produce the products. Bioengineering scientist and research fellow at NASA Ames Research Centre, Josiah Zayner, said that Hammond’s future work is “totally plausible.”

Nick Gorton, a trans physician treating transgender patients at the Lyon-Martin Clinic in San Francisco, said that the project “could totally work.” He said that earlier studies about the effectiveness of tobacco as a genetically modified organism support the safety of the project.

Crowdfunding for the project will continue until January 14, 2016. Hammond is also hoping for a broader system where trained care providers will assist transgender people using the DIY hormones to test their own blood levels.

“This is where the project gets interesting to me,” he said,sc aiming “to have a pharmaceutical system where you have community hubs where people can grow the plants and hormones and there are specialists who have knowledge and can pass it along to trans people in the community.”

“I’m not expecting avid success in a year, that would be really naive, but I'm looking at myself as a connective tissue in this whole process,” Hammond stated. “I am looking at myself as someone who can connect people in the DIY bio community, and researchers, and queer people who have a space here and whose lives are affected by the availability of hormones.”

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