It's a little early for Halloween, but a new startup's goal is to sell blood, and lots of it.

Physician Dr. Jesse Karmazin is the founder of what some might consider a vampiric business called Ambrosia, LLC. The company, which hopes to open a clinic in elder-rich New York City, is being built on the premise of blood plasma transfusions. Karmazin's team basically will take the plasma from young individuals (those 25 or less) and pump it into people who are older, the idea being that the transfusion will help recipients combat aging or, even better, reverse it.

Sound like a pipe dream? Maybe, maybe not.

Karmazin's business is based primarily on parabiosis, which is the centuries-old idea that you anatomically or physiologically can join two organisms together, usually through the vascular system. Conjoined or Siamese twins are an example of natural parabiosis, but you can also achieve it through surgery, and transfusions are thought of as a don't-need-to-stitch-it-together variation on the theme. Scientists and medical researchers have been playing Frankenstein in this way for decades, hoping to learn from how the organisms involved influenced each other.

But when it comes to controlling aging through the blood, the science jury is still out. For example, Stanford University researchers found that infusions of blood from young mice reversed brain impairments in older mice, and that plasma infusions improved how well older mice did on learning and memory tests. Later work revealed that the results likely came from a specific enzyme called ten eleven translocation methylcytosine dioxygenase 2 (Tet2).

But another study from UC Berkeley found that tissue health and repair declined in young mice when researchers gave those mice blood from older ones. The researchers thus argued that there probably are molecules in older blood that drives the aging process, and that it's those molecules scientists need to target for real age reversal.

The debate has gone back and forth like this since at least 2005, getting more seriously heated starting in 2014. It was in that year that Harvard Stem Cell Institute researcher Amy Wagers first published findings suggesting that older mice improved in areas like heart and brain function when given the blood of young mice. And while plenty of people are paying attention to how blood transfusions might translate into youth, there are also just as many voices shouting that it's all snake oil. This includes Tony Wyss-Coray, who led the Stanford University study, and who asserted to Science in 2016 that there wasn't clinical evidence for Karmazin's study and described it as an abuse of people's trust.

Surging forward anyway

Despite the fact that results from his trials hasn't been published and the trials lacked control groups or peer review, Karmazin told Mashable he's already nabbed 150 patients. The price tag for the "treatments" (Karmazin technically can't call them treatments until he actually knows what the transfusions do) hasn't been announced publicly. But the cost during the trials leading to the NYC clinic reportedly were as high as $8,000 apiece. That fee, according to Karmazin, covered costs like lab tests, insurance, and administrative expenses.

Like any business professional, Karmazin undoubtedly will consider the need for investors as he tries to get the new clinic established and scaled. And in that regard, he's already attracted some high-profile attention. PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, for example, already has expressed interest in parabiosis as a personal health treatment, and his chief medical officer during the trials, Jason Camm, got in touch with Karmazin about his research.

Thiel might very well be right to support Karmazin, and it's understandable that people want to find something that can turn back the clock. But as Tony Wyss-Coray has pointed out, it's not all that difficult to conduct a study with a placebo arm so you can prove you've got something worth crowing about. Whether you're an investor, someone who wants to be Karmazin's first real competitor, or a person who wants to let Karmazin's team give you a blood plasma, that alone is worth some thought.

But let's say this does work. Who benefits? In the United States, it's difficult for many people to afford treatment for conditions they know they have, let alone to spend more money for elective procedures they don't technically need. Will this end up separating classes, creating a situation where the only ones who can obtain longer life and/or protection against decline are those with deeper pocketbooks?

That just might be an idea that's much, much scarier than all the needles.

Published on: Sep 28, 2018
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