Synthetic blood substitutes could divide society into those who are wealthy enough to be able to afford such enhancements and those who are not.
The use of blood as a performance-enhancer used to be confined to athletes looking for a competitive advantage. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari notoriously administered transfusions of blood with high levels of haemoglobin to disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and his team during the Tour de France. Team Sky flew to Switzerland and Spain in between competition heats to acquire blood plasma to boost performance and Floyd Landis went on the record to say he had two half-litre units of blood taken from his body to use during the Tour de France in what has been described as ‘the most sophisticated doping programme ever’.
Outside professional athletics, the idea of blood transfusions as a means to revitalise people and reverse the ageing process is gaining traction. Ambrosia, a new US-based start-up, is conducting a two-year trial in which participants pay £6,200 ($8,000, €6,800) to receive transfusions of blood taken from people aged 25 and under, along with treatments and follow-up assessments. ‘I think the animal and retrospective data is compelling, and I want this treatment to be available to people,’ founder Jesse Karmazin told MIT Technology Review.
According to Karmazin, there are numerous benefits to the practice, including reversing ageing and helping to fight cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and it is highly in demand. As of May 2017, 70 people had been administered a one-time two-litre infusion of plasma by Ambrosia, with participants reporting improvements within one month, according to Karmazin. Around 100 customers have now signed up to receive transfusions, according to CNBC.
The company has released research that appears to back up its claims. In a study, the team observed a 10% fall in blood cholesterol levels and a 20% drop in the level of amyloids – a type of protein that forms sticky plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease – among participants .
Alkahest, a company that develops therapies derived from blood and its components to improve vitality and function, has conducted a study that suggests that blood plasma from young people can be used to rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory and cognition, and making them more physically active. ‘The blood of young people must have something in it that is important for keeping them young,’ says Victoria Bolotina, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University.
We strive to stay in shape, keep our brain healthy acute and become the optimal versions of ourselves.
It is easy to see how these initial trials might spark a demand for young blood among older consumers. Even with little hard evidence, people want to believe that the blood of young people can be harnessed to restore youth. Each day we see how brands play on our insecurities around ageing – beauty creams and elixirs that promise to revitalise the body, and moonshot technologies that seek to enable consumers to transfer their consciousness to an artificial being.
It is easy to dismiss the work of companies such as Alkahest as the stuff of fantasy – in the same realm as vampires, drinking the blood of their victims to maintain a youthful complexion – especially considering how the company relies on blood banks to supply the plasma it uses.
The future of this biotechnology innovation is unlikely to manifest as farms in which humans are harvested for their blood (see the Blade film trilogy). It is instead more likely that pools of artificial Generation Z plasma will be created, tested on, upgraded and personalised by artificially intelligent (AI) systems.
The real horror surrounding the growing desire for young blood is its potential to divide society into those who are wealthy enough to afford synthetic blood substitutes and those who are not, similar to the concerns about other innovations such as gene-editing and brain chip implants.
This quest for optimisation – to be the most effective and the most efficient that we can be – is something that seems implicitly human, however. We strive to stay in shape, keep our brain healthy acute and become the optimal versions of ourselves.
It seems that there is little that can be done to stop people from developing organ upgrades and genetically engineered humans. Or is there? Now there’s a question to get your teeth stuck into.