The idea that the blood of youthful specimens can provide renewed life to undead specters has fascinated cultures the world over and spawned a mythology that remains popular to this day. Fairy stories always contain a kernel of truth, and blood – or the plasma in it – from today’s youth could be the next anti-aging fad among privileged people in their “twilight” years.
Rumors have long circulated that members of the elite have sought to sustain their lives by imbibing the blood of youngsters. The personal doctor to the late Kim Il-sung alleged in 2013 (after defecting to South Korea) that the North Korean dictator would take regular blood transfusions from people in their 20s, with the goal of living to 120 (he was not successful, dying at age 84). It now looks as if some, including Silicon Valley billionaires, are keen to take up the mantle, openly expressing interest in young blood. Where there is a market, there is surely a business willing to make a profit.
Start-up company Ambrosia has started selling plasma transfusions for $8,000 a liter (discount for taking a two-liter treatment, of course), stirring controversy in the science world and bringing up serious ethical questions about the type of society we are creating.
“Young Plasma Treatments”
PayPal co-founder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel attracted some notice in 2016 after admitting that he was interested in having young blood transfused into his veins in the hopes of getting closer to immortality. “I am not a vampire,” he eventually declared to counter unverified rumors that he spends $40,000 per year on such treatments. Whether or not he regularly enjoys sucking blood, Thiel expressed some interest in Ambrosia and its mission.
Ambrosia claims it can help its patients reclaim their youth and prevent aging by taking transfusions of blood from young donors. The company was established in 2016 by Jesse Karmazin, a Stanford Medical School graduate. Quick to attract customers, it now has facilities in Tampa, Omaha, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Karmazin took his inspiration from a recent spate of scientific experiments that have researched the potential anti-aging effects of blood. Several of these studies have involved parabiosis – essentially sewing a young mouse to an old mouse so that the animals share a circulatory system – and then observing the results. While the older mice seem to benefit from the biological support provided by the younger mouse, the young mice tend to decline in health.
One major study was published in 2014 by Dr. Tony Wyss-Coray of Stanford University, who said the results could lead to the equivalent of a fountain of youth. Wyss-Coray also works with his own company, Alkahest, which “is developing therapies derived from blood and its components with a focus to improve vitality and function into old age,” targeting cognitive degeneration, in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. But Alkahest’s goal is to use constituents of blood to develop drugs, not to transfuse plasma directly into clients’ veins; Wyss-Coray has gone on record to call Ambrosia both “immoral” and scientifically dubious.
Ambrosia began operating officially under a clinical trial, which was completed in 2018, after treating 200 clients over 30 years old with infusions of plasma from donors 16-25 years of age. No results have yet been published, but the company now appears to be operating as a business venture. Criticism of Karmazin’s methodology have arisen, but the medical veracity of Ambrosia’s blood treatments is beside the point; the clinical trial appears to be little more than a marketing ploy.
“The data looks really great,” Karmazin told Rolling Stone, sounding more like a salesman than a scientist. “It makes people younger, I think it’s a huge breakthrough.” Meanwhile, he told New Scientist, “I don’t want to say the word panacea, but here’s something about teenagers. Whatever is in young blood is causing changes that appear to make the aging process reverse.”
That Was Creepy
Given that the blood has to come from a living youth, how will this be sourced in a growing market – and how much choice will kids be given when it comes giving their blood? There are concerns not only about the general commoditization of young people and their bodies but also about a black market with elite demand and expensive treatments flourishing in a world where child trafficking is rampant.
According to CBS Local San Francisco, the anti-aging blood industry is growing in the Bay Area, which just so happens to house the immortality-obsessed Silicon Valley. “Plasma transfusions are big hot property right now,” says Aubrey De Grey, chief science officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation. In 2015, The Guardian published extremely detailed reporting on research surrounding the anti-aging effects of youth blood, highlighting the work of Wyss-Coray and his teams at Stanford University and Alkahest. The article states that after their 2014 paper was published in Nature Medicine:
“Immediately, emails flooded into Wyss-Coray’s inbox. Alzheimer’s patients wanted infusions of young blood. So did numerous aged billionaires. One, who flies around in a jet with his name emblazoned on the side, invited Wyss-Coray to an Oscars after-party this year. (He didn’t go.) Another correspondent wrote with a more disturbing offer: he said he could provide blood from children of whatever age the scientists required. Wyss-Coray was appalled. ‘That was creepy,’ he said.”
The report states that there is already a U.S. market for blood plasma, the component typically used in this type of therapy. Indeed, one Florida-based company, CSL Plasma Inc., advises its “donors” (in reality, sellers) they can receive up to $400 a month in compensation for their plasma, as well as points loaded onto a pre-paid card. BioLife Plasma Services compensates their donors with a debit card that can be used much like any other.
This is a for-profit market that makes money by selling “donated” plasma to drug companies; the industry is slated to exceed $23 billion by 2021. Hospitals and non-profit blood banks typically accept donations on a voluntary basis to minimize risks of patients lying, and some claim that the current plasma market is both risky and exploitative of the poor. The Atlantic published a piece by a person who had sold her plasma because “I needed the cash.” She writes:
“U.S. centers also have a policy assured to reel in those with an ongoing, immediate need for small sums of cash: $50 for the first five donations, then $60 a week if you willingly go under the needle twice a week.”
…society becomes a vampiric nightmare?
One college student lost 15 pounds during two years of donating. “I definitely wasn’t eating regular meals, and I think the pressure of keeping up my two donations a week was making me sick,” he said. Other donors admitted to lying about possible health or safety dangers in order to receive their money.
As well as the worrisome potential for child exploitation, will blood treatments further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, not to mention the potential health hazards of distributing such a risky substance? The wealthy are already known to benefit from better health than the poor; with the massive price tag that accompanies youth blood treatment, will the gap between the healthy elite and the sick poor widen ever further? Will a poor underclass of kids end up selling their (possibly tainted) blood to a long-lived elite, simply because they need the money, as society becomes a vampiric nightmare?
These are questions for the future, but others are already following in Ambrosia’s footsteps; the Maharaj Institute was recently spotted peddling youth plasma to the wealthy social scene in Palm Beach, offering sizable compensation to young donors and charging more than a pretty penny for infusions of young blood.