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The Vagina Bio-Hack That Wasn’t: How Two “Startup Bros” Twisted and Took Credit for a Young Woman’s Company

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 25th, 2014


Untitled Document

Austen Heinz and Gilad Gome, of biotech start-ups Cambrian Genomics and Personalized Probiotics, announced at last week’s DEMO conference, "New Tech Solving Big Problems," that they had created a bio-hack to make women’s vaginas smell like peaches.

Yup, you read that right; these “startup bros” think a vagina that doesn’t smell like a peach is a Big Problem to be solved.    

Following on the heels of Heinz’s promise to make dog poop smell like bananas, the duo led their audience to believe they had genetically engineered a probiotic supplement using Heinz’s DNA laser-printing technology in order to bring the world the never-awaited product, “Sweet Peach.”

But don’t worry; they assured incredulous journalists that there would be “practical benefits” too such as preventing yeast infections, and even “loftier” ones about “personal empowerment,” because controlling the way you smell could help “connect you to yourself in a better way."

Obviously, women would totally have equality and self-acceptance if only they smelled like peaches.

These two have clearly been spending too much time around their lasers because they seem to think vaginas are “less complicated” and “stable,” with “only one interference per month." In a hilarious commentary at Gawker, Nitasha Tiku pointed out that someone “may want to tell them about vaginal intercourse.” Or, maybe they need to know that most people have moved on from seeing the vagina as some kind of “an absence” to realize it’s a highly complicated organ, with a lot more purpose than providing pleasure for men.

Last week, it would have been easy to leave it here: Oh look, more computer nerds that have to use Weird Science to interact with the women of their dreams! But this particular example of the actual Big Problem of sexism and misogyny in the tech industry (1, 2, 3, 4…) goes even further.

It turns out that Heinz and Gome did not even create Sweet Peach, though they were happy to take credit, while credit was being given. The CEO and founder of Sweet Peach is actually a 20-year-old woman, Audrey Hutchinson, whom they failed entirely to mention either in their presentation or in their subsequent interviews. Heinz owns just 10 percent of the equity of her company; meanwhile Gome has no connection at all (though apparently making vaginas smell like food is a key interest of his).

Hutchinson, who was the recipient of the Distinguished Scientist scholarship at Bard before pursuing her company, is a self-described “ultrafeminist” who wanted to develop a means for women to take control of their own reproductive health. She has now explained that “Sweet Peach” was never intended to refer to a scent at all, but to the fact that peaches have been a literary symbol for vaginas for hundreds of years. The point of the company is to provide individualized probiotic supplements for women based upon an analysis of their vaginal microbiome in order to promote optimal health.  In Hutchinson’s own words, "A vagina should smell like a vagina, and anyone who doesn't think that doesn't deserve to be near one."

Heinz did not consult with Hutchinson before he chose to debut, and mischaracterize, her product. She told Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici, "I'm obviously sort of appalled that it's been misconstrued like this because it was never the point of my company. I don't want to apologize for [Austen], but at the same time I want to apologize to every woman in the world who's heard about this and wants my head on a stake."

No one should hold their breath for a real apology from Heinz. Even after his own lawyer informed him that “you look like Bill Cosby right now,” he responded that all this media attention “[is] great for Audrey, but for me, I did lose a lot of money today."

He really just doesn’t get it.

But you don’t have to listen to Heinz for long to realize he doesn’t think the smell of women is all that’s wrong with us. His visions for “human perfection” are far-reaching, and he believes technology will soon catch up. He told CNN’s Morgan Spurlock, “We’re literally printing life” and “we make the DNA to fix the mistake. You can take out what’s existing and put in what you want.”

This particular brand of unperturbed arrogance seems to be proliferating in the tech industry. Writing in The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi really just nailed it:

[It reflects] the male-dominated, megalomaniac conviction that a complex world can be boiled down to a series of discrete problems to be solved via algorithms, flowcharts, “culture” and an answer that it’s all in the name of “progress”…

There is a crusader-like zeal to the way in which startup types talk about how they plan to change the world, how they plan to hack the future and disrupt the present – “inspiring”, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick put it this week, “the public at large”. There is a sense that all technological advancements are positive advancements and that while to err is human, to code is divine. (The current controversy around Uber’s internal data-mining feature, referred to within the company as “God View”, is a case in point.) But innovation is only really meaningful if it contributes to a more equitable society – and much of what Silicon Valley terms “disruption” is simply a bleeping, blorping version of the same social status quo.

There’s nothing inspiring or empowering about two male CEOs taking credit for a young woman’s work while twisting the entire purpose from being about reproductive health to being little more than a joke. But a 20-year-old ultrafeminist scientist who’s about to launch her own company? That will be something to watch.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Pigs to People

Posted by Pete Shanks on November 24th, 2014


A pig

In his usual understated and modest way, the media-savvy scientist/entrepreneur Craig Venter planted a seed that grew into a thoroughly misleading headline in the San Jose Mercury News:

Synthetic biologist aims to create pig with human lungs

Not exactly. The pig would have pig lungs, but with some tweaks that would reduce at least the initial rejection of the organ by a human recipient's immune system. Sounded good, though!

Previous reports indicated that Venter's Synthetic Genomics is working on this project with Lung Biotechnology Inc, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics, which is run by the noted transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. This is what Venter was quoted as saying at SynBioBeta 2014:

"We are re-engineering the pig, changing its genetic code. If we succeed with rewriting the pig genome, we will have replacement organs for those who need them."

That is not actually a novel idea. Lord Robert Winston, best known as a British fertility expert, explained the rationale to the London Telegraph in September 2008:

"Pigs' organs are the right size for human transplantation, and they work similarly to human organs. Of course this raises a moral problem, but it is much more ethical to use a pig to save a human life than to use it for relatively unnecessary meat eating."

Winston was frustrated by British and EU regulations ("bureaucracy" and undefined "red tape"), and moved his company Atazoa to Missouri to continue the work. He was confident in 2008 that "we can produce transplantable organs within two or three years … Within 10 years we think they could be available for hospitals." The goal was "humanised hearts, lungs or livers" and the process would be to modify sperm and breed the pigs to order. (Venter plans to adjust cells, which Lung Technologies will then use to create clones.)

Winston's transplant pigs were expected to cost £3 million (roughly $5 million), which perhaps explains the attraction. His Register of Interests at the House of Lords still shows him as a Director of Atazoa, but it now seems to have offices in Knightsbridge, London and has net liabilities of £2.6 million.

Winston estimated that only six genes would need to be altered; Venter has reduced that to five, in an experiment that, he says, created lungs that survived for a year in baboons. (Another team has created pig hearts that survived in baboons for a year, albeit not working as such but "grafted into the abdomen of an otherwise healthy baboon.")

Aside from the rejection problem, which is likely to remain substantial, there is the tricky matter that pigs can suffer from over 25 diseases that can infect humans, and new pig viruses (remember swine flu?) keep being discovered.

Ah, but synthetic biology has an answer for that: Modify people to be virus-proof!

Then the modified people can take organs from the modified pigs and … take lots of expensive drugs for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a winner.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Breaking from our Eugenic Past

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 13th, 2014


In an historic recognition of the horrors of the United States’ state-sponsored eugenics programs during the twentieth century, North Carolina has now begun sending compensation payments to some of its 7,000 sterilization victims. Unfortunately, as NPR has covered, the new policy will lose some people through bureaucratic cracks.


Nonetheless, the importance of this moment for those who have been fighting for recognition of this abuse of reproductive justice and human rights cannot be overstated. It has been a long struggle to get to this point.

Twentieth-century eugenics in the US is often systematically ignored. This year, some important efforts have shed light on how it was that many of the most respected members of society promoted these (profoundly discriminatory) practices. New York University’s new exhibit, Haunted Files: The Eugenics Record Office, which will run until March, is an important one.

The recognition of this history is timely because advances in genetic and reproductive technologies will put increasingly more people in the position of having to wrestle with questions about the kind of child they want – and don’t want – to bring into the world. For example, the start-up company GenePeeks brings us what enthusiasts call “virtual eugenics” by encouraging “best matches” of gametes.

Forbes ran an article over the weekend called “Could Genomics Revive The Eugenics Movement?” Its short answer was, yes, and given our history, we should be really concerned.

Of course, some people would rather ignore these connections. In a twist of particularly cruel irony, Jon Entine published a piece in The Huffington Post called “Let's (Cautiously) Celebrate the `New Eugenics’” on the exact same day that the eugenic victims of North Carolina were finally beginning to be compensated for their loss.

Entine’s argument is along the lines that individual choices absolve us of eugenic implications. But one only need look at the 163 million missing girls in Asia or the over 90% termination rate following a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, to see that this is naïve. Choices about families can never be strictly individual; we are all subject to social and political realities.

Now is not the time to celebrate eugenics (cautiously or otherwise), but to finally learn about the toll that our pseudoscientific eugenic laws had on people’s lives and on society, so that we are not endlessly condemned to repetition.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Human Germline Modification in the UK? Cries of Caution from all Corners

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 13th, 2014


Untitled Document

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an evidence hearing on October 22 to discuss the science of what they euphemistically call “mitochondrial donation.”

The Committee has now published all of the evidence it received for that hearing. Out of twenty submissions, just five explicitly argue in favor of changing the current UK law prohibiting human inheritable genetic modification in order to allow three-person IVF. These arguments largely consist of emotional pleas from families that currently have a child suffering from mitochondrial disease, and that want to utilize the technology in an attempt to have an unaffected and genetically related child.

The other fifteen submissions warn that we are nowhere near being able to promise these families a healthy child. Three make the case that more evidence is needed prior to offering these techniques in fertility clinics. Twelve argue that the risks to women and children are so great that we need to rethink this entire route as a means to prevent inter-generational transmission of disease.

None of these detailed letters were mentioned at the hearing. When I wrote a blog about it a couple weeks ago, I used the provocative title, “What Good is a Scientific Meeting If You Dismiss the Science?” Now that I’ve seen all the evidence the Committee received, I’m wondering if “Dismiss” should be replaced with “Systematically Ignore.” In fact, one scientist who submitted an eleven-page correspondence on concerns about “the safety of the procedures and the health of the children created through them,” notes

The entire public debate and consultation process surrounding mitochondrial replacement has been based on disastrously flawed scientific assumptions.

He’s not wrong.

Although this latest bundle of correspondence is unlikely to get much media attention, the advent of yet more well-documented public criticism could leave its mark.  Leading stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler wrote an open letter to UK Parliament warning that allowing human trials of three-person IVF at this time would be an “historic mistake.” And the editors at the New Scientist recently changed their tune to assert that these techniques are “more messy than [they] thought” because “children conceived in this way will inherit vital traits from three parents.”

What will be determined at the upcoming Parliamentary vote is still anyone’s guess.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





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