There’s an idea floating around out there called “young blood” to use donations from young folks to infuse older people to reverse aging. I’m skeptical.
Imagine an old man and a teenager sitting side by side, with blood flowing from the kid to the oldster in a stab at anti-aging. Sort of like a one-way fountain of youth via blood flow…Sci-fi?
People are kind of trying it in the real world.
A self-described ‘clinical trial’ of a sort by a company called Ambrosia essentially lets you buy an infusion of a younger person’s blood in an attempt at anti-aging for $8,000.
The Rich and Famous and blood
Interested? Reportedly tech guru Peter Thiel is:
“I’m not convinced yet we’ve found a single panacea that works. It’s possible there exist single-point things that could work. I’m looking into parabiosis stuff, which I think is really interesting. This is where they did the young blood into older mice and they found that had a massive rejuvenating effect. And so that’s…that is one that…again, it’s one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s and then it got dropped altogether. I think there are a lot of these things that have been strangely underexplored.”
The Ambrosia trial is run by Jesse Karmazin down at a clinic in Monterey, CA. It aims to test the idea that young blood can help the old or at least relatively older to fight aging. This effort has been controversial and drawn criticism, in part for the money and in part for the clinical side. For example, Amy Maxmen over at Tech Review wrote, “Several scientists and clinicians say Karmazin’s trial is so poorly designed it cannot hope to provide evidence about the effects of the transfusions.” It is also unusual for an early trial to enroll 600 participants when so little is known about an investigational approach. Why so many?
Young blood principle
The idea behind young blood helping the old fight aging has been around for a long time, recently mostly supported by studies in mice including parabiosis work (where a young and old mouse are literally sewn together so as to share a circulatory system) that reported some anti-aging effects. What about humans? Who knows? I’ve include reference to key papers at the bottom of this post. Overall, I just don’t think the data is there.
There is also concern over charging for clinical trial participation here. By charging a big fee from as many as 600 participants Ambrosia could collect nearly $5 million. My opinion is that by charging for participation, those running trials are often going to find themselves in ethically dicey territory at best. For instance, charging patients to get into stem cell trials has unfortunately become a pretty common practice by clinics selling unapproved offerings with little if any data to back them up. So far the FDA and ClinicalTrials.gov, the website hub for trials, have been unable or unwilling to reign in the problem at all.
Small, carefully controlled studies in this general area of research are justified by the intriguing mouse data. For instance, Maxmen highlights a trial by Stanford’s Tony Wyss-Coray:
“In 2014, Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray demonstrated that old mice had increased neuron growth and improved memory after about 10 infusions of blood from young mice. That prompted Wyss-Coray to launch a small company, Alkahest, based in Menlo Park, California, to test transfusions of plasma from young people in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alkahest’s trial seeks 18 patients and charges no fee. Overall, I see that as appropriate as an initial approach.
Caution is needed
Even Wyss-Coray is cautious though:
“Like several other researchers and bioethicists, Wyss-Coray worries about the fact that Ambrosia’s trial is funded by participants rather than investors. “People want to believe that young blood restores youth, even though we don’t have evidence that it works in humans and we don’t understand the mechanism of how mice look younger,” Wyss-Coray says. “I think people are just attracted to it because of vampire stories.” He mentions a Hungarian tale of a wealthy woman who bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth.”
In a way that Hungarian folk story about the countess Erzsébet Báthory, sometimes referred to as Countess Dracula, resonates today. There have been rumors for years already of the rich including high-tech tycoons in Silicon Valley secretly getting all kinds of anti-aging therapies including stem cell and ‘young blood-based’ infusions. Is it all made up?
There is also debate over how young blood would work at the cellular and molecular level, with some pointing toward a specific molecule called GDF11 as the driver, while others don’t agree. Just Google “GDF11” and you’ll see the debate in the various results that pop up.
The basic science
The idea of using younger or even fetal biologics to fight aging is really catching a wave right now beyond blood too. The recent Nature paper on young brain stem cells and their exosomes specifically fighting aging threw many people into a tizzy of excitement. We should be careful in extrapolating to any possible future clinical benefits. Even more on the edge was the discussion this week of a paper on ‘young’ heart cells potentially helping aging, a finding that the senior author reportedly described using the phrase “fountain of youth”. The idea of young blood and young tissues fighting aging has permeated into pop culture too. Just take a look at this 2012 piece by Perez Hilton.
Overall, there may be some real potential here conceptually with young blood or ‘young cells’ or specific compounds from them having anti-aging properties. The data so far are promising in animals, but this is one of those cases where hype is at risk of taking over an area of translational research and many people getting hurt. Yes, let’s study this concept carefully, but in my view you shouldn’t charge for it nor expose hundreds of people to risks in a single trial with little if any human data to support it.
A link to all “young blood” titled papers in PubMed and a couple key research ones:
- Young blood reverses age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in mice. Villeda SA, Plambeck KE, Middeldorp J, Castellano JM, Mosher KI, Luo J, Smith LK, Bieri G, Lin K, Berdnik D, Wabl R, Udeochu J, Wheatley EG, Zou B, Simmons DA, Xie XS, Longo FM, Wyss-Coray T. Nat Med. 2014 May 4.
- Vascular and neurogenic rejuvenation of the aging mouse brain by young systemic factors. Katsimpardi L, Litterman NK, Schein PA, Miller CM, Loffredo FS, Wojtkiewicz GR, Chen JW, Lee RT, Wagers AJ, Rubin LL. Science. 2014 May 9;344(6184):630-4.