Our columnist Melanie Jane Parker examines the practice of using youthful blood to slow aging
Leviticus 17:11: For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.
The Oxford Dictionary of Biology defines blood as “a fluid body tissue that acts as a transport medium within an animal.” The heart dilates and contracts, sending blood coursing through veins and arteries, delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues and organs, and carrying waste matter from the center to the periphery for elimination.
A new frontier in parabiosis (“the anatomical joining of two individuals, especially artificially in physiological research”), known as heterochronic parabiosis, entails flooding an older organism with blood from a younger organism.
In heterochronic parabiosis, plasma (clear, yellowish fluid of vertebrates) is separated out from the blood whole and combined with platelets, before the combined fluids are delivered to the recipient’s circulatory system (arteries, arterioles, metarterioles, capillaries, venules, veins, spaces), which spiral out into the entire body. Like a field after a long drought, the older organism becomes freshly irrigated, replenished, and fertile for growth. At least, this is the hypothesis.
The first successful transfusion is recorded as having taken place in 1665, when English physician Richard Lower “[kept] dogs alive by transfusion of blood from other dogs.” Over one hundred years later, physician Philip Syng Physick performed a human-to-human blood transfusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1818, a British obstetrician saved the life of a mother by extracting four ounces of blood from her husband’s arm and transferring it to his rapidly hemorrhaging wife.
The symbolic lore of blood however, is far older than our understanding of the ways in which blood can be moved and manipulated. In Mesopotamia, the bloodthirsty demon Lamashtu (La-maš-tu) was depicted as having the head of a lion and the body of a donkey, and “was said to watch pregnant women vigilantly, particularly when they went into labor. Afterwards, she would snatch the newborn from the mother to drink its blood and eat its flesh.”
Newborns are not being used in the trial studies of heterochronic parabiosis. According to a website for Ambrosia, a clinic that specializes in researching and developing aesthetic applications of the procedure, you must be at least 16 years of age, and 25 at most. Donations are procured from blood banks. Ambrosia’s website does not specify what standards or requirements the average trial participant might have to meet, nor how much it costs to undergo the two-day young plasma treatment at their offices in Monterey, California. The models featured on Ambrosia’s website appear young, lean, healthy.
Jesse Karmazin, the founder of Ambrosia, describes himself as a “physician, aging researcher, and former paralympic rower.” His major athletic achievements include winning the silver medal in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing; winning first place in the 2008 U.S. Rowing National Championships; and winning fifth place in the 2006 FISA World Championships. He is 31 years old.
Neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, a professor of Neurology at Stanford (Karmazin’s alma mater), argues that charging volunteers to take part in the nascent stages of young plasma transfers verges on abuse of “trust and public excitement.”
In a study entitled “Induction of Dermal Collagensis, Angiogenesis, and Adipogenesis in Human Skin by Injection of Platelet-Rich Fibrin Matrix,” authors McCormick and Sclafani describe the process of “manipulating wound healing” through the use of platelet-rich plasma as “time- consuming.”
Naturally, a procedure that struggles against the relentless march of time would indeed be time-consuming. After all, the wounds in need of healing via heterochronic parabiosis are time and age. “Age is the major risk factor for many of the leading causes of death in the world, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and dementia,” reads Alkahest’s website, a private company co-founded by Wyss-Coray. Alkahest is currently investigating the potential applications of plasma transfusions in Alzheimer’s cases through a Stanford-sponsored study aptly titled PLASMA.
An aging brain loses neural connectivity. The hippocampus, where we store memory and learned information, is particularly vulnerable to the deceleration of neurogenesis. In 2008, researcher Saul Villeda found that the transfer of blood from young mice enhanced cell growth in the hippocampus region of older mice brains. The hippocampus allows us to form new memories, and to develop a sense of continuity between experiences, stimuli, and places. It contributes to the creation and maintenance of narrative structure.
Blood is fluid, meaning it does not retain a narrative shape outside of its network of vessels. According to Greek humoralism, blood’s season is spring (the season of rebirth, resurrection). Its element is air, its organ is the liver. It is warm, moist, sanguine. It is characterized as courageous, hopeful, playful, and carefree.
The first three human blood groups (A, B, C) were distinguished by Karl Landsteiner in 1900. C was eventually changed to O. Two years later, Landsteiner’s colleagues discovered blood group AB.
A can give to A and AB, but not to O.
B can give to B and AB, but not to A or O.
AB can give to AB, but not to A, B, or O.
AB can receive from A, B, AB, and O.
O can give to A, B, AB, and O.
Anastomosis, the technique of sewing the recipient’s vein to the donor’s artery to prevent clotting, is recorded to have been first performed in 1908 by French surgeon Alexis Carrel. Andreas Libavius, the 17th century German doctor, wrote: “The hot and spirituous blood of the young man will pour into the old one as if it were from a fountain of youth, and all of his weakness will be dispelled.” Libavius was also an alchemist; he believed in chrysopoeia, the theoretical process of transforming metal into gold.
In an article published in August 2016, Ambrosia’s going rate for plasma transfusion is revealed: $8,000 for approximately 1.5 liters.
Under “Other” on the Red Cross’s FAQ page, we find the question, “Why am I charged for blood at the hospital when I have donated blood to the Red Cross previously?” The answer: “Since 1960, the Red Cross has been reimbursed by hospitals for the costs associated with providing blood to hospital patients. The Red Cross does not charge for the blood itself that you have so generously donated. The Red Cross only recovers the costs associated with the recruitment and screening of potential donors, the collection of blood by trained staff, the processing and testing of each unit of blood in state-of-the-art laboratories, and the labeling, storage, and distribution of blood components. Hospitals may have their own additional charges related to the administration of blood and may pass on these costs to their patients.”
In the same article that discloses the cost of an Ambrosia parabiosis, Peter Thiel is quoted as stating, “It’s an extremely abundant therapeutic that’s just sitting in blood banks.” It being human plasma, abundant being the key word.
An abundance of blood under the wrong circumstances signifies death, whereas an abundance of blood under the correct circumstances signifies life. In plasma transfusion, abundance means added time, enhanced memory. It means, perhaps, greater strength and resilience. Old mouse one minute, young mouse the next.
Herein lies a strange meeting of science and religion, a collapse in the faith-fact continuum: blood heralded as the stuff of salvation, retribution. One body’s sacrifice ensures the longevity of other bodies. Herein lies the fine line between the development of medical technology to alleviate suffering and the development of medical technology to serve the aesthetic or cosmetic desires of the privileged.
Because (as Wu-Tang put it so perfectly back in 1993) cash rules everything around me, there will be heterochronic parabiosis for those in need and heterochronic parabiosis for those in want. To put it crudely, think Mad Max War Boys versus Kim Kardashian (granted, her face was saturated with her own fresh blood for a cool $2,500). Think half-life versus the good life. Dr. Halland Chen of New York City suggests that “the immortality and youth of the vampire is part of what has led to an obsession with the creatures of the night. However, the real secret to eternal beauty might actually lie in the blood after all.”
Leviticus 7:27: Whatsoever soul it be that eateth any manner of blood, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.
Written by Melanie Jane Parker