Improvement in medicine has seen many people living longer than ever before. Still, the reality of growing old is one that many people would want to do away with altogether. Different methods and treatments have been suggested for fighting aging. The use of young blood certainly ranks among what some would consider weirdest ways to slow down aging. But then there are those who would be ready to exploit this means to fight aging if it is sure to work. A new trial has been launched in the United States to confirm this claim, although concerns have been voiced about the study.
The new trial is being conducted by a Monterey, California-based company called Ambrosia. The startup was co-founded by Jesse Karmazin, a 31-year-old, Stanford-trained physician. Karmazin had reportedly been studying aging for more than 10 years, having developed interest in the area since his undergraduate days. He will serve as the principal investigator in the trial.
This is a pay-to-participate trial and will focus on individuals in their late 30s or older. The idea behind the Ambrosia trial is influenced by a procedure known as parabiosis, which has been practiced for over a century.
Parabiosis involves joining the circulatory system of two animals (young and old) such that their blood mixes together. This can help slow impact of aging on the older animal, but can also speed up aging in the younger animal. The procedure was pioneered by French physiologist Paul Bert in the 19th Century. Animals, particular rats, are cut open and sewn together so that they have shared blood vessels when healed.
Parabiosis grew in popularity in the 1950s when it was observed that older mice lived longer as a result, pointing to potential anti-aging benefits. The procedure was however relegated to the background in the 1970s, probably in part as a result of its crude nature. Of recent, there is increased interest in parabiosis with human trials currently being conducted in several countries, including the U.S., China and Korea.
Parabiosis studies have shown that young blood plasma can help to rejuvenate aging mice. It is beneficial to the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs in the body. One major conclusion that has been arrived at from these studies is that the blood contains certain substances which help to either keep us looking younger or older. Some of these proteins help us grow and heal faster in childhood and adolescence. However, the levels of these proteins drop as we enter adulthood, leading to deterioration of tissues in the body. This exposes people to debilitating diseases as they get older.
Trials such as the one being conducted by Karmazin's company are from the background that supplying young blood plasma to older individuals could help them fight aging and its associated problems. The Ambrosia trial is influenced, among others, by a young blood plasma study in mice published in 2014 by neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray and his team. It was discovered in that study that injecting blood plasma from young mice enhanced memory and learning ability in old mice. Wyss-Coray, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, postulates that deterioration which results from drop in pro-youthful proteins leads to rise in pro-inflammatory proteins which worsen aging.
About 600 individuals aged 35 or older are expected to participate in the trial by Ambrosia. Each of these people is expected to part with $8,000 to be considered for inclusion. The participation fee has been justified on the grounds that it covers different tests as well as ethics review, insurance and administrative charges.
Each participant will receive around one and half liters of blood plasma collected from a donor younger than 25 years over a period of two days. These people will then be assessed for over 100 biomarkers, including hemoglobin and inflammation markers, both before plasma infusions and a month later. Participating in the trial would be relatively healthy individuals. Researchers would monitor these people for a period of two years for molecular indicators of aging and overall health.
Billionaire technology investor Peter Thiel was reported by Inc. to have shown interest in the prospect of using young people's blood to fight aging. Karmazin was said to have been contacted by Jason Camm, Chief Medical Officer at Thiel Capital, expressing interest in the trial.
Several questions have been raised about this trial being carried out by Ambrosia. A major complaint is the requirement for intending participants to pay. Ethical questions commonly come up when people are asked to pay to take part in a study. Although Karmazin has tried to justify the participation fee, some still believe it is not ideal for those being experimented on and exposed to potential side effects to be made to pay.
The decision to test numerous markers is also considered unrealistic. The problem here is that chances of "confirming" non-existing relationships are greater when comparing too many things. Granted there are methods to eliminate the "multiple comparisons" debacle, some watchers seem to doubt the ability of Karmazin to utilize them. The fact that participants do not necessarily have to be elderly makes it hard to tell if the strategy works. The absence of a placebo group further deprives the trial of an essential quality of true scientific enquiry.
Another concern about parabiosis-based anti-aging solution has to do with supply of blood plasma. If the Ambrosia trial does manage to prove anything positive, this looks to become an issue. Human blood is not readily available for purchase on the market. Blood products are strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. So it is going to be tough to get young blood plasma for slowing aging.
While Karmazin acknowledges the problem of plasma supply, he thinks popularity of parabiosis could make more young people to become willing donors. But a scary angle to all this is that a black market may surface. Number of missing people and fake, unsafe blood products could surge. For comparison, it is not totally new to hear of people's internal organs being extracted against their will for sale.
However, it is being speculated that parabiosis is already in practice in Silicon Valley, where wealthy persons are thought to spend several thousands of dollars on the procedure. The treatment is said to be repeated by these people several times in a year.
Legal markets for blood plasma exist in several countries, although these are intended for medical procedures to treat disorders. If plasma from the young people's blood is proven to fight aging, it would not be surprising to see many people, especially the wealthy such as Thiel, drawn to it. But that also looks to create room for underhand practices at the same time in a bid to ensure sufficient supply.
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