In the news last week was the failure of an experimental Eli Lily & Co. drug to measurably help Alzheimer’s disease patients. This failure in the third round of clinical trials revives doubts about the Alzheimer’s research focus that has dominated research in the past decade- preventing beta amyloid plaques. Lilly and other companies have spent hundreds of million of dollars developing drugs that try to stop the buildup of in the brain of beta amyloid plaques, a sticky protein that is believed by many to be the primary culprit in the disease. However, none of these drugs has worked in a major patient study, and Lilly’s failure could accelerate the pursuit of different research strategies.
A different approach is underway at Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Researchers at Stanford are engaged in a clinical trial where Alzheimer suffers are given a transfusion of blood plasma from young people. The Stanford team is engaged in giving a small number of patients a transfusion of blood plasma donated by people under 30 to older volunteers with mild to moderate Alzheimer's. The caretakers of the patients are keeping journals to try and track any changes. Unfortunately, it is devilishly difficult to measure Alzheimer’s objectively. Nonetheless, the scientists are hopeful.
The Stanford team lead by Dr. Tony Wyss-Coray are not the first to wonder whether the answer to the problem of ageing might lie in human blood. One of the first physicians to propose blood transfusions to rejuvenate older people was Andreas Libavius, a German doctor and alchemist in the 1600’s.
In more modern times, years of animal research suggests the transfusion of young blood can improve organ and brain health. Dr. Amy Wagersat, of Harvard University discovered in 2012 that a protein in the blood plasma called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) seemed to be linked to rejuvenating effects in old mice with a heart condition.
In Dr. Wagerstat’s experiments the ageing mice were given injections of GDF11 for 30 days, their hearts responded just as they had when they were given blood of younger mice. This appeared to verify that GDF11 is one of the ingredients in blood responsible for rejuvenation. This lead Dr. Wyss-Coray and his team to test plasma on brain function. The Stanford team believes that GDF11 could also play a role in rejuvenating the brain in humans.
The studies all point in one direction. Among the hundreds of substances found in blood are proteins that keep tissues youthful, and proteins that make them more aged. Dr. Wyss-Coray has a hypothesis: when we are born, our blood is awash with proteins that help our tissues grow and heal. In adulthood, the levels of these proteins plummet. The tissues that secrete them might produce less because they get old and wear out, or the levels might be suppressed by the genetic programing. Either way, as these pro-youthful proteins vanish from the blood, tissues around the body start to deteriorate.
If the test of young human plasma is successful, what then. As Dr. Wyss-Coray said; “If it actually works? That would be huge. Every patient would want it.” If the trial works, there are ways to obtain plasma. A startup company has now launched the first clinical trial in the United States to test the anti-aging benefits of young blood in relatively healthy people. It's a pay-to-participate trial. Ambrosia in Monterey, California, plans to charge participants $8,000 for lab tests and a one-time treatment with young plasma. The trial is open to anyone 35 and older with cash to spend.