In an episode of the new season of Silicon Valley , Thomas Middleditch’s character attends a meeting with a former silicon valley CEO who has a personal “blood-boy”. This “blood boy” was a young, former athlete; hired to provide blood transfusions to the CEO, to sustain his vitality!. This is clearly a complete exaggeration. I mean, comedic hyperbole is what Silicon Valley does all the time. It could never be rooted in real-life events, right? Well...
So there is a company called Ambrosia
Ambrosia is a recent research venture in the real silicon valley; founded by Stanford-trained physician Jesse Karmazin. After more than a decade of studying aging, he started Ambrosia and launched its first study in June 2016 titled: Young Donor Plasma Transfusion and Age-Related Biomarkers. According to Ambrosia, the purpose of the study is to “evaluate the beneficial effects of infusions of plasma from young donors using blood biomarkers” (Clinicaltrials.gov, National Institute of Health). Basically, they want to take blood from young people and see how well it works. The trial plans to provide 600 patients with weekly blood plasma transfusions for four weeks, with the infusions coming from young people aged 16-25 years old. The study is inspired by Karmazin’s personal intrigue in the surgical procedure, parabiosis.
Sidebar: Wait, what’s parabiosis?
Parabiosis refers to a surgical procedure where two organisms are able to share physiological systems such as the circulatory system of the blood. The first parabiotic experiment based around studying the anti-aging effects of the young blood of mice to older mice began in 2005, in a study conducted at Stanford University. (Eggel; Wyss-Coray, 2014) It was only until 2014 that Amy Wagers, and her team from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, proved that the transfer of a certain protein (GDF11) found in younger mice to older mice can restore muscle tissue and improve brain activity in older mice (Wagers, et al.; Science 2014). This study caused a resurgence of interest in parabiotic study for the purpose of conducting human trials as a means to discover anti-aging treatments.
So, here is where the vampirism emerges
A barrier-to-entry still exists for Ambrosia and other start-ups interested in cashing in on the plasma transfusion market: where can you buy human blood plasma (legally)? Presently, plasma is free from many of the FDA restrictions on the selling of human blood (red blood cells). However, this does lead to moral dilemmas around both the sketchy solicitation of potential plasma donors (some as young as 16 years old) and the potential health risks of donated plasma from donors lying about illnesses. In fact, during the Aids epidemic of the 1980s thru the 1990s, numerous studies show that the risk of HIV infection was higher in donated plasma from paid donors than from blood transfusions from hospitals (Wellington, 2014). Also…
Parabiosis might be some pseudoscience BS
Along with the ethics concerns, many scientists believe that the science behind these parabiotic therapies are illegitimate due to a questionable experimental design. (Kaiser; Sciencemag.org, 2016). Also, studies as recent as 2015 have shown that the GDF11 protein is irrelevant in rejuvenating aging muscles (Egerman, et al, 2015; Hinken, et al, 2016). Even Wagers has gone on record stating that GDF11 “does not provide the full beneficial effects of young blood,” and believes further study of the various proteins in blood is needed (Walker, Wagers, 2016).
But, rich people really want it to be a reality
Despite these public criticisms, Ambrosia has become the talk of Silicon Valley, even gaining the attention of Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel. Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and investor in Facebook, has stated repeatedly that he believes death can be “cured”. His support has brought Ambrosia into the limelight, and its initial trial study attracted nearly 80 patients with a median age of 60 years old. They paid $8,000 to participate in the experiment!
So, are rich people trying to become vampires?
More research needs to be done to f determine the exact effects of the GDF11 protein and other blood plasma proteins on the anti-aging benefits of muscular rejuvenation. Also, startups like Ambrosia will have to determine a legal and socially responsible way to obtain “young” blood plasma. But, with Silicon Valley supporting these current projects, don’t be surprised when talk of the vampiric nature of the rich and powerful reaches an uncanny level of similarity to your favorite horror stories. Hopefully it’s more like Silicon Valley than Human Centipede.
nih.com (National Institute of Health)