Studies on mice show that bathing older rodents in the blood of younger animals yielded astonishing results on cognitive tests. Could humans with Alzheimer’s disease benefit from the same procedure?
The first clinical test to see if Alzheimer’s disease in older adults can be reversed by infusions of blood plasma donated by healthy young people failed to yield explosive results. However, the November 2017 release of data involved only a small group of 18 subjects and is the first of many such trials expected to take place as methods are refined. According to CEO Karoly Nikolich of Alkahest, a startup company in San Carlos, California that sponsored the trial, the company is “encouraged” to perform more such studies.
More than 264 gallons of blood pass through the adult human brain every day. Research shows that brain health is impacted by changes in molecules that circulate in plasma, the liquid part of blood, as organisms age.
Experiments from 150 years ago demonstrated that when an old mouse and a young mouse were stitched together to share circulatory systems, after a few weeks the older mouse could perform better on cognitive skills such as mazes. More recently, tissue samples from such older rodents revealed rejuvenated muscle, liver, and other tissues.
Stanford Lab Opens Door to Alzheimer’s Treatment
A few years ago, a team at Stanford led by neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray discovered that injections of the plasma portion of blood could achieve similar results in rodents. Plasma is the single largest component of human blood, comprising about 55 percent, and contains water, salts, enzymes, antibodies and other proteins. The straw-colored liquid is easily separated out of whole blood by a centrifuge process.
Ongoing Trial Open to Older Adults
If you have several thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, jet out to Ambrosia LLC in San Francisco or Tampa for a two-day young blood plasma treatment. Founder and graduate of Stanford University medical school Jesse Karmazin says the treatments contribute to heart and brain health.
“I think we now have data showing that it does make people feel healthier and stronger,” says Karmazin. “We see improvements in heart health, in brain health, in inflammation and cancer risk. We’re seeing the same things that were predicted based on the mouse studies.”
The typical Ambrosia patient is near retirement age. Some people come to maintain their health; other patients have an illness such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes. Several people have returned for multiple treatments.
Adults age 35 and older get injections of blood plasma from youngsters aged 16 to 25 for two days, and it will only set you back $8,000, hotel and air not included. The treatment has qualified as a clinical trial, although some are skeptical. Stanford neuroscientist (and co-founder of Alkahest) Tony Wyss-Coray said the trial is “abusing people’s trust” and that there is “no clinical evidence” that supports claims of anti-aging benefits.
Ambrosia’s informed consent form won’t guarantee results or improvement in regards to age-related diseases. Health risks are basically dependent on the safety of the blood product, which is collected and screened by blood banks in the United States. Karmazin himself is 32 and thus ineligible for treatment.
When Wyss-Coray was in his 20’s and 30’s, he didn’t care about his own ageing. “You have no understanding of what the problems are,” the 50-year-old says. “Now I see that the brain starts to slow down. I’m not as quick any more at grasping things, or remembering faces. I used to see a person for a few minutes and I’d remember their face. I couldn’t understand how they’d not remember who I was. And now it happens to me. It annoys the crap out of me.”
Wyss-Coray was encouraged enough by his research in 2014 to co-found Alkahest, a biotech company with a mission “to enrich the health and vitality of humankind through transformative therapies that counterbalance the aging process.” The startup’s first effort was to see if young plasma could help people with Alzheimer’s.
Led by Sharon Sha, MD, a clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford, the trial established the safety, tolerability, and feasibility of plasma treatment in humans. Sha wasn’t surprised by those findings, since blood products from the United States are among the safest in the world. However, she was intrigued by hints of subjects’ improvement on tests of functional ability such as performing tasks of independent daily living, like remembering to take medications, paying bills, and preparing meals.
Early-Phase Trial Protocol
Nine patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s got four weekly injections of either a saline placebo or plasma from 18-to-30-year-old male donors, followed by a six-week break. Then, injections were switched so the patients who had gotten saline received plasma, and those who previously had plasma injections were switched to saline. Nine other patients received young plasma only.
Patients who completed the young plasma treatment did no better on objective cognitive tests given by medical staff. But a caregiver survey assessing how much help patients needed with activities of daily living revealed improvement: 4.5 points on a 30-point scale. Another survey given to caretakers also showed modest improvement in patients’ ability to perform tasks such as getting dressed and shopping.
Cautious Optimism Going Forward
The study results are “interesting” but raise many questions, such as what cellular process in the brain is targeted, according to Howard Feldman of the University of California, San Diego. Neuroscientist Zaven Khachaturian, retired from the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland and current scientific advisor to the Alzheimer’s Association, concurs.
“They need to explain the potential mode of action,” he says. “(Patients) could feel better because somebody paid attention to them.”
Wyss-Coray agrees further tests need to be run. Still, he says, “It’s tempting to feel hopeful about the improvement in functional scores.”
Because the treatment appears safe, Alkahest now wants to implement a trial using only the part of plasma that contains growth factors, eliminating coagulation factors and other components that may inhibit successful treatment. Animal studies showed this plasma fraction was more successful at improving cognition than whole plasma in mice with a condition similar to Alzheimer’s. The company plans to test a range of doses and include patients with more advanced disease symptoms.
“The PLasma for Alzheimer SymptoM Amelioration (PLASMA) Study (PLASMA),” U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“Clinical trial finds blood-plasma infusions for Alzheimer’s safe, promising,” Stanford Medicine.
“Young Blood May Hold Key to Reversing Aging,” New York Times.
“What are the ethics of using young blood to reverse the effects of aging?,” TED Conferences, LLC.
“Blood from young people does little to reverse Alzheimer’s in first test,” American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Neuroscience: The power of plasma,” Nature ISSN 1476-4687 (online).
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