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05/09/2014

Why vampires stay young

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In the world of fantasy, the vampire is known for its immortality. In most incarnations, the vampire lives forever in a youthful state by feeding on the blood of humans. Now it turns out that science may have proven that the blood of the young keeps you young.

At least, if you’re a mouse. Three papers published in the last week (two in Science and one in Nature Medicine) showed that giving blood from young mice to older mice reduced many of the signs of aging.

In the studies, flaps of tissue from two genetically identical mice (one young and one old) are sewn together. The healing causes the tissue to fuse and share blood supply. Besides seeming a bit like the Island of Dr. Moreau, the experiment has led to some startling findings. For example, the studies learned that the old mouse experienced an increase in neurons and the brain became more flexible. The older mice increased their ability to learn and to remember. The young blood also improved muscle health, leading to greater strength and endurance. Two studies focused on a particular protein, GDF11, that when used alone (in a study published last year) improved heart health in old mice. In essence, the young blood turns back the biological clock. None of the studies looked at whether the mice live longer.

A team at Stanford hopes to begin human studies in a short time. The lead author of one of these papers, Tony Wyss-Coray has even created a start-up company, Alkahest, to explore the development and eventual marketing of these findings.

Before running out to your local blood bank or to a surgeon to have yourself sutured to a young person, remember that many experiments that have increased mouse life span—low calorie diets, rapamycin, resveratrol—have not had success in extending human life span or other primates.

If the young blood turns out to be the fountain of youth, it could have significant social implications. There is already a myth that sexual intercourse with a virgin  cures HIV infection. The result of this story is an increase in rates of rape of the very young. If it turns out that the blood of the young increases lifespan, I can imagine people bleeding infants.

It’s also not certain that humans would agree to being sutured together to share their blood supply (or that an IRB, I would hope, would allow this). Studies need to progress further on what aspects of blood cause the youth effect to make a clinical trial practical. Does anyone think that the cost of an anti-aging drug will be low? If it’s not affordable to everyone, then a person might think “Why should I spend my limited money on this drug when I can get a dose of blood from my kids.” Vampirism could become part of the family dinner.

In terms of social disparity, would young poor people feel compelled to sell their blood? Wealthy people may see the poor as a resource to be bought similar to the illegal organ trade. Parents may sell their children’s blood to make rent.  Could college tuition be paid on a blood plan?

Even if it wasn’t vampiric blood drinking, but taking a pill, there still remain issues. Dream drugs like this, which most people in the population would want to take, pose a real risk of creating a disparity between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Who would get the drug, assuming it works?  Would this be covered under insurance? Would it be required (after all, keeping young is a great way to prevent chronic diseases of aging and that would save a lot of money). Even if the drug does not extend lifespan but extends youthfulness, the market would be enormous. Does society need a way to increase our social and health disparities? How much would one pay for this youth serum? How much could a company charge for it? One can imagine a society whose entire economy is based on selling or procuring this substance.

Now, I am not arguing against pursuing this science. I am suggesting that its potential social implications require serious study and discussion. Our society is built on the notion that a person lives and then dies. If suddenly death was no more, or the human life span was extended, then we would have to change the way we think about a lot of things like generations and retirement. Other scholars have written extensively on this topic elsewhere.

On another front, although the new trend in science is for a researcher to make a discovery so that he or she can start a company that will license/manufacture/sell the idea/product, this still feels like a conflict of interest. You can’t serve the master of your institution (and ideally the pursuit of knowledge) and at the same time be influenced by dreams of IPOs and stock options that will make you wealthy. The temptation to cut corners, to ignore troubling results, to protect human subjects, and to maintain objectivity is compromised.

Before venturing further into the absurdum, it’s important to remember that at the moment, a few genetically similar mice are living younger. That youth comes with a cost—being a conjoined twin. Eternal youth comes with a price whether a loss of freedom, spending large sums of money, or knowing the right people to get access. Before leaping into human trials, it would seem that there is some work to be done. In the meantime, I need to go shopping for a coffin and black cape.

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