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Scanning electromicrograph of an HIV-infected T cell

The moment Tristan Roberts became the first human to inject an untested, experimental gene therapy into his stomach fat, he was sitting on a leather couch in his friend-slash-yoga instructor's living room, not on a doctor's examining table.

The glass coffee table in front of him was strewn with syringes. A Chihuahua mix wearing an inflatable recovery collar snored beside him.

The event was livestreamed on Facebook, and hundreds tuned in (later, Roberts' mother watched, though she was "not thrilled" with his decision). On Roberts' right was Aaron Traywick, head of Ascendance Biomedical, the nascent company behind the treatment. A network of unnamed researchers around the US assembled the vials in front of them.

"We do not advise that anyone watching this video do what is about to be done here," said Traywick, who is not a scientist and identifies primarily as a "community organiser".

"Tristan Roberts is completely within his rights according to the FDA and the rule of law in this nation… to self-experiment on himself in any way that he deems medically appropriate. It is his...