We can never know who was the first elder to wonder whether a dose of blood from somebody younger could make them young again, but I’ll bet it was near the dawn of the human race. In those days eating the victim was probably the preferred technique. Vampire mythology linked drinking blood with immortality and, of course, there was the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory who supposedly bathed in the blood of young girls (though those stories probably aren’t true). But this is 2018—we can get a blood transfusion instead.
A recent episode of the CBC science program “Quirks & Quarks” included an interview with Dr. Saul Villeda, who’s been following up on earlier research into blood-swapping in mice. The process is called parabiosis and there was some promising research in the 1970’s which showed that the vital organs and brains of older mice could be rejuvenated when the mice were surgically joined to young mice and shared the same blood. After waning in popularity, the procedure has had a resurgence in the past decade with equally encouraging results and a strong focus on learning the chemical mechanisms involved. After all, if the blood of young mice can help the regrowth of muscle and liver cells, repair damaged spinal cords, enhance the growth of new brain cells, and even make the old mice’s fur shinier, think of the implications if this could work in humans. A clinical trial involving Alzheimer patients is not yet complete, but you can imagine the excitement a positive result would bring.
Various studies have attributed the benefits to the hormone oxytocin (levels in our bodies naturally decline with age), as well as a protein called growth differentiation factor 11 and, in Villeda’s research, to another protein called Tet2. There are probably others. Most of these substances seem to do their work by activating the body’s stem cells (generic cells that can become specialized cells as needed) and by making changes to cellular DNA. It’s important to note that identifying the active components removes the need to use actual blood to get the benefits. Compounds could be synthesized in laboratories. Studies have already shown that blood plasma is effective enough without using whole blood.
But science fiction writers ask, what if…?
What if it became widely confirmed that young blood was like a fountain of youth for older people? You can get a hint from a San Francisco & Tampa company called Ambrosia—they’re conducting clinical research offering patients blood transfusions from young donors for the price of $8,000 per litre or $12,000 for two litres in an outpatient treatment they say takes about two hours. Their study results haven’t been published yet, but so far they claim, “Our patients have reported improvements in areas such as energy, memory, and skin quality.”
For now, it’s just a metaphor that the ultra-wealthy of the world are “bloodsuckers, feeding on the poor”, but that could literally come true. The rich might buy perpetual youth and longer life from those who need to sell their very blood to buy food. And that’s the rosier scenario. Something tells me that a black market wouldn’t take long to develop. Criminal elements would get involved. Blood “donors” might be unwilling victims, assaulted or killed for their young blood.
SF writers before me have imagined societies where “organ-legging” is a widespread criminal activity keeping the wealthy in replacement organs when their own fail. What if the contraband is blood? Will we have a completely stratified society between a nearly immortal elite and an underclass with venous catheters installed at birth? Will Hollywood depend on a blood ghetto to keep its stars beautiful? What would the long-term effect of such things be on the human gene pool? And how long would it take before someone tried to use such methods to create a super race?
My opinion? Better to give these researchers lots of funding so they can find the chemicals involved and replicate them in factories, rather than wait until the blood of our young people becomes a hot commodity.