Anti-ageing technology is flourishing in Silicon Valley. The latest to hit the headlines is parabiosis – transfusions of blood or plasma from another body.
A California company called Ambrosia (after the elixir which made Greek gods immortal) is charging its older clients US$8,000 for plasma transfusions from people aged between 16 and 25.
So far about 100 people have signed up, Dr Jesse Karmazin, the co-founder of the company, told a conference this week. Although anyone over 35 is eligible, so far most clients have been of retirement age. The blood is sourced from blood banks, so the donors may not be aware that it is being used to rejuvenate oldies.
Strictly speaking, the clients are signing up for a clinical trial, “Young Donor Plasma Transfusion and Age-Related Biomarkers”, which has been registered with the National Institutes of Health. Critics say that it borders on fraud. But Dr Karmazin says that all of his patients have improved, and that there have been no side-effects.
Using young blood to reverse ageing appeals to something deep in the human psyche. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is intrigued by promising research on mice. He told the internet magazine Inc last year:
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I’m looking into parabiosis stuff, which I think is really interesting. This is where they did the young blood into older mice and they found that had a massive rejuvenating effect. And so that’s … that is one that … again, it’s one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s and then it got dropped altogether. I think there are a lot of these things that have been strangely underexplored.
However, there are numerous ethical issues.
First of all, participants in the trial are being charged $8,000. This is legal, but is also a way of introducing a therapy into the market which might never get approval if tested on a more conventional way. And then the data supporting a human trial is thin. “There’s just no clinical evidence [that the treatment will be beneficial], and you’re basically abusing people’s trust and the public excitement around this,” says neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, of Stanford University, told Science last year. Nor is there a placebo arm – because, Dr Karamazin says, Ambrosia could hardly charge $8,000 if half the participants received a placebo.
Finally, what about the teenagers who participate? They haven’t given their consent to it nor are they aware that Ambrosia is collecting $8,000 for using their blood. Even if they are not harmed by the transaction, it seems unfair in some respects.
And if parabiosis does work, even more questions arise. As a splenetic article in Gawker about Peter Thiel pointed out last year, “It’s not hard to imagine a Thielist future in which members of the overclass literally purchase the blood of the young poor in order to lead longer, healthier lives than their lesser counterparts can afford.” (Gawker closed down shortly afterwards, having lost a defamation suit funded by Thiel.)
News accounts of Karmazin’s announcement were accompanied by this clip from HBO’s hit series, Silicon Valley, which obviously is a sly dig at Thiel: