Column: As age-obsessed billionaires turn to ‘vampire’ therapies, the FDA takes a stand
The federal government finally took a stand this week on vampires feasting on the blood of the young.
It’s against the practice.
Actually, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about older people injecting themselves with the blood plasma of young donors — a fringe therapy that’s marketed as a way to fight aging and a variety of illnesses, including dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Simply put, we’re concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “Such treatments have no proven clinical benefits for the uses for which these clinics are advertising them and are potentially harmful.”
He added: “Reports we’re seeing indicate that the dosing of these infusions can involve administration of large volumes of plasma that can be associated with significant risks, including infectious, allergic, respiratory and cardiovascular risks, among others.”
Shortly after the FDA’s announcement, a Monterey, Calif., start-up called Ambrosia Health said it would stop offering the injections. Customers paid $8,000 for a liter of young blood, $12,000 for two liters.
The vampire miracle cure is just one of numerous treatments that have formed a multibillion-dollar rejuvenation business as Americans grow older.
Some are legit, or involve minimal risk, such as taking fish oils to improve memory. Others are potentially dangerous or border on pure quackery.
“People have been peddling anti-aging snake oil since Day One,” said Kathy Black, a professor of aging studies and social work at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
“Gerontologists have long said that there’s a limit to how long you can live,” she told me, “and that’s about 120 years.”
Not that there’s anything new about wanting to cheat death — human beings have been keen on the idea since at least the ancient Egyptians.
What’s different now is the combination of enormous wealth being focused on such endeavors and technological breakthroughs that promise at least a shot at longevity, if not immortality.
Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison has channeled much of his fortune into keeping the Grim Reaper at bay. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page reportedly are heavy into anti-aging research, as is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire, has launched the 2045 Initiative, which aims to map the brain so our minds can be downloaded into robot bodies or synced with holograms.
Then there’s Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who popularized the idea of harvesting the blood of the young.
He wrote in 2009 that he’s opposed to “confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.” He subsequently revealed that he was taking human growth hormone pills as part of efforts to live to at least 120.
In an interview published in 2016, Thiel enthused about a process known as parabiosis, which sounds benignly academic until you learn that it involves taking blood from young people and injecting it into older people in hopes of tapping into a biological fountain of youth.
Thiel said we shouldn’t be opposed to new ideas just because they’re, you know, totally freaky.
“I suspect we’re a little too biased against all these things in society,” he said.
Thiel apparently has yet to indulge his thirst for parabiosis. Or if he has, he’s not publicizing it (which would seem wise). He declared in November that he has never injected himself with a “young person’s blood.”
“I want to publicly tell you that I’m not a vampire,” Thiel said at an investment conference. “On the record, I am not a vampire.”
Well, it’s good to have that settled. Although, for the record, the issue here is injection of blood plasma, the liquid portion of blood, not the part with red blood cells. So Thiel hasn’t quite put the matter to rest.
In any case, there’s no shortage of interest in Silicon Valley.
Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology at USC, told me that when he meets with tech industry execs, “there are lots of people talking about immortality. It’s not about living to 110 or 120. It’s about living to 1,000.”
He declined to identify these wannabe Dorian Grays. All Longo would say is that “you hear some really delusional talk from some really famous people.”
This isn’t to say that medical breakthroughs aren’t worth pursuing.
Stem cell research, for example, holds promise for addressing a variety of ailments including diabetes and Alzheimer’s. However, as my colleague Michael Hiltzik has reported, claims of rejuvenation are, shall we say, exaggerated.
“Aging is a source of stigma and shame in our society, so it is not a surprise that many individuals are looking to profit from this,” said Meika Loe, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Colgate University and author of “Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.”
“Anti-aging quackery goes back for centuries, and for centuries people have been harmed by falling for the latest antidote to aging,” she said.
Loe and Longo both said that even though there has been potentially promising research involving longevity of mice, there’s precious little data about how such experiments can affect humans.
Not to be alarmist, but as an avid consumer of science fiction, I don’t mind observing that whenever the government warns at the beginning of a movie not to inject yourself with other people’s blood, it’s just a matter of time before the human race is overrun by bloodsucking fiends.
Then there are the inevitable philosophical questions that would arise if anyone cracks the immortality code. Would it be available to everyone? Would we have two classes of people, immortals and non-immortals?
“It’s time that we stop portraying aging as an illness, or something to fight,” said Maria Claver, director of the gerontology program at Cal State Long Beach. “Rather than trying to avoid aging, which is impossible, we need to focus on educating people about lifestyle choices that can optimize the aging process.”
Black at the University of South Florida said the question people should be asking isn’t how we can last 1,000 years. It’s how we can have the highest quality of life for the time we’re given.
The trick, she said, isn’t harvesting the blood of children. It’s “staying physically, mentally and socially engaged.”
Which may not be as fun as living to 1,000, but it makes the most of being in the moment.