FEEL that? It’s your body, slowly degrading. Ageing affects us all, and it leads to diseases that eventually kill most of us. No wonder so much research is going into creating an antidote.
If we come up with a way to slow, halt or even reverse the ageing process, we could potentially protect people from cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. The idea is to extend “health span”, the number of years of good health a person enjoys. Extra birthdays are simply a bonus.
Where philosophers once pursued outlandish schemes for eternal youth, researchers now believe there are plenty of worthwhile options to investigate. But do any hold water, and will they be for all, or only the rich?
Take the young blood plasma theory, for example. The idea is that there’s something in the blood of people aged under 25 that keeps them youthful, although we don’t yet know what it is.
Old mice injected with plasma from young mice, or even from human teenagers, appear rejuvenated – they are healthier, more active and show fewer signs of ageing. There’s also anecdotal evidence that people who get blood transfusions from under-25s feel better than those who receive blood from older donors.
Teams around the world have started trials of blood plasma transfusions to treat age-related diseases, but Jesse Karmazin is taking a different approach. His company, Ambrosia, based in Monterey, California, is offering them to anyone – providing they can afford the $8000 price tag.
Karmazin hopes to treat 600 people and record their health before and after a transfusion. So far, Ambrosia has signed up 40 people and treated 20 of them. “They’re all over 35, and are in relatively good health,” he says, although some have chronic fatigue syndrome or Alzheimer’s. Most are in their 60s and 70s and have a variety of reasons for wanting to stay young. Not all are rich – some see the experiment as a worthwhile investment.
The people who have been treated are already reporting benefits in cognition, muscle strength and energy levels, says Karmazin. But this clearly isn’t a rigorous clinical trial with placebos, so as of yet, we can’t be confident of any benefits.
“Old mice that get blood plasma from young mice or from human teenagers appear rejuvenated”
Karmazin says it’s ethical to offer the treatment and that it is cheap and safe, meaning it could quickly enter mainstream medicine. He buys the plasma from blood banks, where he says it is often a by-product of blood prepared for transfusion.
Others are yet to be convinced, and think other treatments show more promise. They are aiming to enhance DNA protectors known as telomeres, an idea backed by decades of work in mice and other animals.
Telomeres are the “caps” on the ends of chromosomes, and plenty of evidence links their length with ageing. The caps shrink every time a cell divides, until they are too short to protect chromosomes from damage. Next comes either a straightforward cell death, or a slow process called senescence that leads to inflammation and surrounding cells being damaged.
Both animals and people who start life with short telomeres tend to develop age-related diseases earlier in life, and to have shorter lifespans.