Inside the latest longevity pseudoscience.
Over the summer it became apparent that Silicon Valley wingnut Peter Thiel was fascinated with the prospect of extending his life by transfusing the blood of younger humans into his veins. This revelation (although not shocking given Thiel's notorious oddities and obsession with fringe elixirs) touched off a storm of cheap vampire-joke headlines. But it also put a spotlight on the trove of research that sparked Thiel's literal bloodlust—studies showing that mice infused with the blood of their youngers experienced signs of rejuvenation and statistically longer lives.
These animal studies recently inspired human trials in China, South Korea, and America. Thiel's people have expressed interest in one, by a firm called Ambrosia, which is currently recruiting 600 people to receive injections of 16-to-25-year-olds' blood. These studies, and Thiel and his would-be-ageless ilk's rabid interest in them, have left many ethicists and pundits wringing their hands about how society might respond if young-blood treatments actually came on the market: Beyond the ick factor, many have speculated that such therapies could lead to a dystopian order in which the poor offer up (or are coerced out of) their precious bodily fluids to sustain the life of those at the top of the social heap—not unlike the opening premise of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Wonks and worrywarts need not fret about the future so much as about the present. Legitimate studies on young blood are in their infancy, years away from developing reliable treatments, if they ever do. But it's actually already possible—and under some circumstances not difficult—for people (read: the wealthy) to get young blood into their veins. It's unclear whether folks like Thiel are already making use of any of the several increasingly iffy ways to get their hands on the stuff. But if research continues to show promising results for this macabre method, it'll just raise the chances that we'll see ghoulish and foolhardy new iterations of longstanding grey health markets spring up to meet emboldened demand.
Wonks and worrywarts need not fret about the future so much as about the present.
The fact that people may want to pump themselves full of young blood—much less that legitimate science hopes to draw treatments out of the veins of youths—seems bizarre when one looks at the treatment's unglamorous past. From the Classical era (and likely earlier) up through the Renaissance, some twisted intuition led people across Europe to believe they could ingest the essence of virile young folk by consuming their blood. Accounts from the continent in the mid-17th century talk about apothecaries making human-blood marmalade for patients, and about commoners filling pots with the blood of executed men to drink to ward off sickness. In the same century, European doctors experimented with transfusions, and proposed linking the circulatory systems of two beings, to extend life—but they wound up killing so many people due to a lack of knowledge about blood types (and probably just sanitation) that such science was largely outlawed.
By the 1860s, scientists were stitching together rats' blood systems (possibly inspiring HG Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau). As they learned more about blood (and developed safe transfusions) in the early 20th century, physicians started to note anecdotes about young blood boosting older patients' energy and giving them a younger appearance. From the 1950s into the 1970s, scientists continued to link the circulatory systems of mice (in a process called parabiosis), which helped them learn a bit about how blood works, but also left them with more observations about young blood's life-extending potential than they knew what to do with.
Then around the turn of the millennium, a professor who'd learned about parabiosis in Montana in the 1950s passed on his knowledge of the procedure to a grad student, whose work created a new academic lineage probing young blood. (Some researchers hope it could help to turn back the effects of aging, others just hope it could help the elderly recover from injuries or people of all ages undergo treatments like chemotherapy.) These new researchers established that its potential benefits lie in the fact that as we age, the levels of some of the 700 or so proteins in our blood plasma shift, causing rippling changes in all of our tissues and bodily functions. (Hence old blood can theoretically cause aging effects in a younger body, just as young blood's proteins can rejuvenate, although not reverse aging, in older folks.)
Their mouse studies, exploring blood mechanics and trying to isolate protein effects (while showing that positive effects could be achieved via plasma injections rather than full parabiosis) began to attract significant popular attention two to four years ago. Then last year, one of these researchers, Stanford's Tony Wyss-Coray, launched Alkahest, and initiated human trials, fast-tracking past FDA approval (since blood and plasma transfusions are already accepted and largely safe medical practices).
There's still a lot we don't understand about the therapeutic potential of young blood. Mice live in very different circumstances and have significantly different bodies than humans, so we're not sure (anecdotes aside) if it'll have the same effect on us. We still don't know which proteins we should be focusing on. Nor do we even know how extensive or long lasting the effects of young blood would be in humans—if there are any consistent effects—or what dosages we'd need.
There's still a lot we don't understand about the therapeutic potential of young blood.
Scott Carney, the author of 2011's The Red Market, which explores semi-licit and illicit human tissue trafficking, thinks these young studies and the provisional nature of their admittedly scant results should block most people from pursuing sketchy, early young blood treatments today.
"This isn't the sort of thing that will create a strong market force," he says. "It's an alternative therapy at best at the moment."
Yet many people, eager for any sort of panacea for aging, have jumped aboard the young blood bandwagon with vigor. Alkahest got an early shot of funding from the family of a Chinese billionaire with Alzheimer's who reportedly regained some cognitive ability and vivacity after a blood transfusion from a young donor. They've also received a landslide of interest in their work, including from those interested in getting involved, or getting their loved ones in a trial.
A lack of proven viability or fully developed treatments has never stopped such eager beavers from getting their hands on what they see as a magic bullet or final hope. Case in point: There are numerous stem cell clinics across America, which use the guise of conducting human trials (that never yield published results) to offer patients absolutely unproven-to-bogus for-profit therapies.
"There're people who don't even claim it's a trial," says pharmaceutical executive and anti-aging wonk John Furber. "There are people who just claim it's a [legitimate] therapy" to clients.
Furber says he wouldn't be surprised if some of these clinics added young blood or plasma to their menu of offerings, or if new bespoke blood clinics opened up. Given the size, supply, and accessibility of the US blood market (and the openly for-profit plasma industry), it likely wouldn't be too hard.
Some observers actually worry that the Ambrosia trial Thiel recently took an interest in, which charges $8,000 to participate, is the first major example of just such a clinic. Furber stresses that it's common for companies without massive financial backing, like big pharma money, to charge participants in studies. He also thinks $8,000 is a reasonable sum to cover blood supplies (which tend to average $300 per transfusion), lab work, insurance, ethics reviews, and admin costs, but not to make any real profit—just like Ambrosia says. Yet critics note that the study contains all manner of flaws (e.g., it lacks a control group) that will make its results nearly worthless, the company's founder actually tried to launch a failed plasma treatment overseas in 2015, and the study was reviewed by the same ethics board that approves a number of for-profit stem cell clinics. And Wyss-Coray has openly mused that the Ambrosia pay-to-play model might be an abuse of public interest in and excitement about young blood research.
It's already possible for the super-wealthy to receive young blood treatments, if they're willing to shell out some serious cash and have a willing doctor.
It's also already possible for the super-wealthy to receive young blood treatments privately, if they're willing to shell out some serious cash and have a willing doctor. Furber notes that there are already plasmapheresis clinics around the country, which remove a person's blood supply, spin out the plasma, and replace it with new plasma over the course of several hours. Usually these clinics treat people with autoimmune disorders whose blood is attacking their own bodies, but it'd be legal to use them without such a condition, given a doctor's recommendation.
"I personally don't know of any doctor who would be willing to do it that way," says Furber, "but that doesn't mean that such a doctor doesn't exist."
It'd be difficult to guarantee blood's youth in a clinic. But the super-rich can acquire their own plasmapheresis machines, and work out a deal for plasma donations from youths they know.
"I think that's a couple hundred thousand dollar machine, which, if you're a rich person—I mean Peter Thiel, you could have one in your bathroom, I guess," says Furber, laughing, before adding, "I'm joking. I know nothing about Peter Thiel aside from what was in the newspapers."
Those set on getting a young blood transfusion but strapped on cash and not eager to deal with the red tape in the US can always just travel to a country with an active red market. From Brazil to Bulgaria, it's all too easy to find brokers who will either procure a bag of blood for you, or bring you an actual donor for a direct transfusion in a willing medical facility.
Perhaps the best-known red market for blood is in India, which suffers chronic shortages in its official blood banks and thus needs these services. According to Michele Goodwin, a University of California-Irvine law professor and author of 2013's Black Markets: The Supply and Demand of Body Parts, India's government officially opposes this market, but does little to stop it. She, for one, just showed up and managed to get people to open up to her about procuring blood with no trepidation. Additionally, she found brokers throughout America willing to facilitate access to black markets for human tissue and blood, and notes that anyone seeking young blood online can find out about Indian resources, often for fraction of what any blood in America would cost through official channels—not even on the dark web.
"It would be pretty easy [for an American] to show up at an Indian hospital with a bag of blood and get it transfused," says Carney. "I doubt it happens very much, though."
As with premature stem cell therapies, there are risks built into all of the premature means by which one might secure young blood in the hopes of fighting aging ASAP. Most obviously, poor regulation of red market blood supplies and a lack of resources in the hospitals that would use it lead to substantial risks of disease transmission. However, even in a young blood trial or through a private doctor, with all safety measures in place, there's always a body rejection risk, which can lead to death. In Ambrosia's case, Furber is especially worried about how little we know about dosages—he suspects they might be trying to give people too much plasma in one sitting.
The wisest course of action for anyone interested in young blood's anti-aging properties would be to sit back and wait with eager anticipation for everyone researching it to isolate a cocktail of proteins, then soup it up in a potent concentration that goes beyond normal plasma, perhaps laced with antibodies that would counteract the proteins that lead to aging processes.
The wisest course of action for anyone interested in young blood's anti-aging properties would be to sit back and wait.
Those with a futurist bent can also hold out for the utopian nanobot world of tomorrow Furber dreams of: "You might [eventually be able to] inject somebody with nano-robots that would go in and scoop up these bad factors and either chew them into little bits that could be digested or excreted into poop," he says, "then get some young plasma if you need it," or a manufactured good protein cocktail, as well. "That's not available yet, but it's foreseeable with current technology."
Whether due to utopian thinking or desperation, there will always be someone eager, willing, and able to jump the gun on a new cure and give it a go in a dangerous, unproven, and uncertain context. Young blood is no different. Considering the ease of accessing blood as opposed to stem cells or an experimental drug, and the common experience of pain and stress caused by the degenerative effectives of aging—whether in yourself, or watching them in someone you love—it might be easier to push folks over the edge to experiment with young blood outside of traditional channels.
For now, the field is so young and bizarre that only folks like Thiel are likely to be probing around its edges. But as more research emerges in the coming years, the dangerous experimental circle will likely grow wider. Before that happens, we have to acknowledge and contend with the ethical and social dilemmas of a world in which we treat aging with the blood of youths. Because we're already at that world's illicit back door.