Can young blood rejuvenate the old?

Bruce Skelton asks if blood transfusions could delay the inevitable.

Bruce Skelton
8th May 2018

A scientific discovery from 1864 has been rejuvenated in attempts to solve anti-ageing. But is it all it’s made out to be, or are we still no closer to living forever?

To fill you in here’s a swift recap of the last 150 years surrounding the topic.

Paul Bert, a French physiologist and zoologist, completed the first known parabiosis experiment. A process involving the anatomical connection of two previously separate organisms. He removed a strip of skin from two rats and then stitched them together. In doing so, he hoped that the rat’s tissue would heal naturally, resulting in a shared circulatory system. By injecting one rat with fluid, Bert found that it also passed into the other, thus evidencing his success in joining the two rodents.

(Delightful, I know…)

Later in 1956, biochemist Clive McCay applied this same technique to the study of ageing. By joining young and old rats together, the bones of the older animal began to match those of the younger one in terms of weight and density. Of greater interest to us is a study in 1972, which found that the older animal lived longer than it otherwise would if it wasn’t joined to its circulatory partner. Furthermore, when the experiment was repeated in 2005, the older mouse’s liver, stem cells and muscle repair were observed to restore to a younger state.

This brings us to the feature of the article. Could this 150-year-old technique be replicated with humans?

No. I’m not suggesting that we replicate the technique identically, whereby a 70-year-old would be surgically attached to a teenager. Instead, we would utilise a conventional blood transfusion. A procedure which was visually brought to life in HBO’s fourth season of Silicon Valley. Young donor Bryce is effortlessly hooked up to Gavin as if it were a simple normality.

Back in real-life, Ambrosia – a start up in California, has been doing just that. 31-year old Jesse Karmazin offered a two day ‘clinical trial’ costing $8000 to any person sick or healthy. However, the treatment has been heavily criticised on both ethical and scientific grounds.

One of those critics, Tony Wyss-Coray joined Stanford university to start Alkahest. A company which studies the effects of plasma transfer between the young and old, with a particular focus on those suffering with Alzheimer’s.

The prevention of brain deterioration is where this research now seems most prominent.

[pullquote]If positive results start to be produced, the once inevitable could be prolonged[/pullquote]

Studies at the University of California found that improvements in a mouse’s memory and learning could be induced through young blood infusions. These effects are a result of improved connections within the hippocampus. Steps were also made to replicate the improved hippocampus results through specially created viruses. This would circumvent the requirement for teenage blood transfusions.

Business interest into the research appears to be growing. For example, Grifols recently invested £29 million into Alkahest, becoming partners. This is initially constructive; however, I also think it’s a cause for concern. If positive results start to be produced, the once inevitable could be prolonged.

I’m left thinking about the Justin Timberlake feature film Time. A society controlled and divided not by monetary inequality, but by the ownership of time. The highest in society could live longer, whilst the lives of those at the bottom are shorter.

Whilst the significance of more than a century’s research cannot be understated, the reality is that it’s still only applicable to rodents. For us, ageing remains inevitable.

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