Teenager Blood: The Fountain of Youth?
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In 2016 the magazine Inc published a story that would bring an obscure scientific practice into the spotlight and push Pay Pal founder and Silicon Valley legend Peter Theil into a somewhat dubious spotlight. “In October 2016 an Inc article linked Thiel to the biotech firm Ambrosia, which was seeking federal approval to conduct clinical trials of parabiosis using donor plasma from people 25 and under.” (The Hot, Young Blood Transfusion Idea Taking Over Silicon Valley by Tanya Basu, March 27, 2017, inverse.com) Since then, another article popped up by Sarah Buhr for techcrunch.com denying Peter Thiel’s connection to the company Ambrosia—yet, the connection lingers on as the original journalist of the Inc article Jeff Bercovici has stood by his reporting. Either way, what is absolutely correct is that Ambrosia is a real company and is currently recruiting wealthy older people to pay a large sum of money to be human guinea pigs. Many have voiced strong opposition with Ambrosia’s tactics, including charging a large sum of money to be part of an experiment in which the benefit has not yet been proven, and yet, Ambrosia most definitely sells that receiving the plasma from people under 25 will have all sorts of benefits, including turning back the clock on age-related health issues as well as increased longevity.
“Parabiosis is a 150-year-old surgical technique that unites the vasculature of two living animals. […] Experiments with parabiotic rodent pairs have led to breakthroughs in endocrinology, tumor biology and immunology, but most of those discoveries occurred more than 35 years ago.” (Ageing Research: Blood to Blood by Megan Scudellari, January 21, 2015, nature.com) The subtitle to the article (reference above) from the very prestigious journal Nature explains a lot why medical and science reporters are intensely covering the young blood old blood story: By Splicing Animals Together, Scientists Have Shown that Young Blood Rejuvenates Old Tissues. Now, they are Testing Whether it Works for Humans. For a long time, Parabiosis was seen as a thing of the past with the last serious studies dating back to the nineteen seventies. Today, there has been a resurgence, and some of the research has suggested that when old mice are fused surgically with young mice and the two share circulatory systems, the old mice begin to look and have the health of the young mice. However, the young mice trend the opposite with many of their organs resembling that of much older mice. Some skeptics of the youth-enhancing quality of young blood argue that because old blood ages young mice, the issue is not that young blood is helpful, but that old blood is harmful. Meaning, that if they could isolate the aspects of old blood that is either causing damage or not repairing damage, then they could develop a helpful therapy for humans.
Longevity and turning back the clock are not the only focuses on Parabiosis and the infusing of young blood into the old. “In 2014 Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray demonstrated that old mice had increased neuron approach and improved memory after about 10 infusions of blood from young mice.” (Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy: A Startup Called Ambrosia Will Fill Your Veins with the Blood of Young People and Empty Your Pockets of $8,000.00 by Amy Maxmen, January 13, 2017, MIT Technology Review) Another blood transfusion therapy company is Alkahest. Alkahest, however, is not under the same criticism as the company Ambrosia. Based on the Stanford work, Alkahest has hypothesized that infusing the plasma of young donors into old people might be an effective therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s. Alkahest is currently being funded by a Chinese billionaire for which Alzheimer disease runs in the family. There are some significant differences between Alkahest’s approach from Ambrosia. Alkahest is not marketing their study as a fountain of youth. Alkahest is only taking on 18 patients and is not charging any money for the study. Alkahest, however, is still not without criticism, and many people in the scientific medical research field believe there is still not enough evidence to do studies on humans as blood transfusions—especially on the elderly—is not without risk. “Although blood transfusions are considered safe for people who need them to survive, side effects can include hives, lung injury, or even deadly infections.” (Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy: A Startup Called Ambrosia Will Fill Your Veins with the Blood of Young People and Empty Your Pockets of $8,000.00 by Amy Maxmen, January 13, 2017, MIT Technology Review)
When reading over countless articles on parabiosis and giving young blood to older mice, there are a lot of studies that see a positive correlation between young blood and improved health. “In the past few years, however, a small number of labs have revived parabiosis, especially in the field of aging research. By joining the circulatory system of an old mouse to that of a young mouse, scientists have produced some remarkable results. In the heart, muscles, and almost every other tissue examined, the blood of the young mice seems to bring new life to aging organs, making old mice stronger, smarter, and healthier.” (Ageing Research: Blood to Blood by Megan Scudellari, January 21, 2015, nature.com) So, the claims of Ambrosia and Alkahest are not completely without scientific merit. Only time will tell once the findings of these two companies are made public. For sure Ambrosia is doing the hard sell, and many people in the scientific and medical field are arguing that Ambrosia is taking advantage of “aging people desperate to defy their own mortality.” (How a Society Gala was Used to Sell Young-blood Transfusions to Baby Boomers Desperate to Cheat Death by Rebecca Robbins, March 2, 2018, statnews.com) For me personally, I came out on the side of freedom. There is compelling science connecting significantly improved health in old mice when they receive the blood from young mice. There has not been conclusive evidence, and some of the studies were conflicting. If people want to pay several thousands of dollars to have the plasma of young people, and if the procedure is not excessively dangerous, then I say go for it. I am not comfortable with the government regulating stupidity. Meaning, buyer beware. If you are interested in jumping in on this slightly gory bandwagon, I heartily suggest doing a lot of research and a lot of discussion with your doctor and perhaps other professionals involved in biomedical research who would be able to interpret the studies.
After completing the research for this article, I asked myself if it was established as safe would I want to try it? And oddly, I couldn’t come up with an answer. Taking the blood of the young and using it to extend the life of the old just felt a little Frankensteinish. It felt like a weird moral territory that would take some time to map out.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.