Can transfusions of young blood slow the aging process? Ambrosia Plasma founder Jesse Karmazin is on a mission to find out.
Before entering medical school, Jesse Karmazin worked at the National Institute on Aging, a research division of the National Institutes of Health. As a junior doctor, inspired by over four centuries’ worth of work on the medical questions surrounding age and disease process, the Stanford-educated MD began to focus on the links between the age of the human body and the age of its blood.
“Everything from heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes—these all stem from the minute change that occurs every day as we age,” he explained.
Today, Karmazin’s biomed startup, Ambrosia LLC, offers clinical trial participants a chance to add youthful blood to their circulatory systems as a way to slow the aging process.
The process that inspired him, parabiosis, takes place when two living organisms are joined for the purpose of sharing a physiological system, such as the circulatory system.
“In mice, parabiosis has been shown to reverse the aging process. That’s where two organs are joined and blood mixes, and in mice makes the older animal young again,” he continued.
“In mice, there’s been at least a dozen studies looking at different body parts. No matter where they look, they find that the mouse becomes young again. There’s so much evidence that young blood has a rejuvenating effect on older animals. There is an overwhelming amount of data in mice, and that’s what prompted me to do this research.”
Public reactions to the project range from wholehearted acceptance to the ten-foot-pole treatment, but Karmazin takes it all in stride.
“Transfusion is an older, very well studied procedure. We’re not doing anything new except ensuring that the blood we transfuse is coming from a younger person. From a regulatory standpoint it makes what we’re doing very practical. From a safety standpoint we already know how to do a transfusion very safely,” he insisted.
“If you’ve never needed a blood transfusion, it is a very common and well established procedure. People who are healthy may not realize that eventually, as you get older, your risk of disease increases. If you’re young and haven’t had an illness, it’s easy to ask, “What’s the problem?”’
As for problems, FDA approval is not on Ambrosia’s list. Similar to the off-label use of drugs, in which an FDA-approved drug is prescribed for use not stated in the official packaging, Ambrosia’s blood transfusions require no oversight by the agency.
Young Blood on Trial
The Ambrosia trial is patient-funded. For $8,000, participants undergo a battery of blood tests before and after a transfusion of 2.5 liters of young plasma. College kids hoping to sell their blood for cash have been gravely disappointed; Ambrosia works with local blood banks to receive leftover plasma that would otherwise be discarded.
Participants must be at least 35 or older to enroll, and after that there’s no age limit. “Everyone ages differently; some people age faster, some people experience aging earlier than others, so we’re happy to treat anyone who is experiencing the effects of aging.”
While the price of treatment might seem expensive, Ambrosia operates at cost.
“The costs are for all the laboratory tests we have to do on each patient,” Karmazin said. “A big part of that is blood work. When you go to the doctor they take a blood sample and they can tell from that how well your kidneys are functioning, how well your blood is working.
“All of your organs produce molecules and they call these biomarkers. A blood test is the best way to tell how you’re working on the inside and we do about 150 of these tests before and after treatment.”
Outside investors have expressed interest, but as of this writing the startup is powered solely by its participants.
“We have some potential investors who have had the treatment themselves as a way to gauge whether it worked,” he revealed. “The potential investors who have done that are now pretty serious about investing. I would say sometime next year we might do a round, but it hasn’t materialized yet. We started 13 months ago, so we’re still exploring the treatment.”
The Realities of Research
Karmazin started the project with modest hopes and low expectations, and has been surprised at the results he’s seen to date.
“At the beginning we didn’t really know what was going to improve, but very quickly, within the first three to six months, we were finding really dramatic improvements in markers for cholesterol, inflammation, and others. We now have real proof that this works.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated that a single treatment would have noticeable improvements, but it does,” he enthused. “Even after one treatment patients feel a lot better, they have a lot more energy and they’re stronger, and they feel significantly better than before. It’s kind of amazing how much it improves, and the blood work supports that.”
According to Karmazin, the study has already demonstrated statistical significance.
“That happened really quickly, which means the treatment really helped. It has a pretty strong effect. To be honest, I thought it might be a subtle effect, maybe after several treatments a person might have some blood work improvements. I really didn’t expect that it would be such a big change after one treatment. It’s really noticeable.”
While the results appear striking, it’s yet to be seen if the effects of young blood transfusions are more obvious in certain parts of the population than others.
“I have two theories. I thought, maybe it’s easier in a younger person who is healthier to roll back the clock when it comes to damage repair. The other was, maybe it will be easier in an older person because the difference is so much bigger. The difference between a teenage donor and an older person is a big difference, maybe that will have a bigger effect. It actually seems to work pretty much the same in both groups,” he admitted.
“It does vary from person to person, and that’s why it’s so interesting. Everybody ages differently, and so there is variability in terms of how people respond to the treatment. It works better in some people than others, but it’s not (because of) their age.”
He posited that differences may be related to matters of genetics or environment, but the question has yet to be fully explored.
Outlasting the Doomsayers
For his part, Karmazin seems unfazed by criticism.
“In most cases the people who are criticizing just don’t understand what we’re doing. It was unbelieveable how critical people were when we started. Now that we’re able to explain to people what this is, and that transfusions are a common medical procedure, it helps people learn about what we’re doing. I think of it as education,” he said.
“People can’t agree if youth is something we should be working for. Some people ask, ‘aging is natural, so why are we messing around with Mother Nature?’ When you think about it, everything in medicine is designed to keep a person healthy. Youth is synonymous with health, and there are many more people who want to stay healthy and energetic and not have illnesses happen to them.
“From a medical perspective, it’s the problem to solve. It drives all of these illnesses that develop later in life. And as a developed country, we’ve gotten good at preventing infectious diseases with vaccines, our drinking water is safe from an infectious disease standpoint, and we’re really careful about not succumbing to the diseases that most of the rest of the world faces.
“That means we get to live longer, and then the diseases of aging happen. That’s why I’m excited to be focused on aging, which is the driver of most of the illnesses we face,” he said.
“One of the problems with existing medicines is that they don’t really cure you. For heart disease or Alzheimer’s, for example, there are medications that slow the progression of the disease, but they don’t make you become younger. That’s what so exciting about this research.
“It helps reverse diseases and not just slow them. It seems to unwind them. Of course, the trial is ongoing, but I think it will help people lead much stronger, healthier lives.”
In developed countries we are living longer than ever, but disease often turns those extra years into difficult battles with pain and illnesses that decrease the ability to enjoy whatever extension we might wish for.
“There’s how long you live, and there’s also how healthy you are in your life. This treatment looks like it may be useful both preventively and for treatment,” Karmazin noted. “People like to use car analogies; there aren’t that many cars that can last for decades. We are complex machines. We don’t have the tools to keep ourselves well running, and I really hope this can be one of them.”