Science

Start-ups come of age: Ambrosia in a bid to slow ageing

Bloomberg February 25 | Updated on February 25, 2019 Published on February 25, 2019

Scientists have been running controlled anti-ageing tests for a century but on rodents, not people   -  istockphoto

In 2016, a tiny start-up announced an experiment that seemed equal parts medieval sorcery and science fiction: It would inject older people with the blood plasma of young donors in a bid to slow ageing.

For three years, Ambrosia Chief Executive Officer Jesse Karmazin charged patients $8,000 to infuse one liter of plasma as part of an unorthodox, crowd-funded clinical trial. Karmazin promised extraordinary results going so far as to proclaim in media interviews that his treatment comes pretty close to immortality.

Warning issued

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration poured cold water on his improbable dream. The regulator, echoing individual medical experts, issued a warning saying the treatments benefits are unproven and that the practice could be harmful.

“We’re concerned that some patients are being preyed up on by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies,” the FDA said. Ambrosia, named after the mythical food that conferred immortality on Greek gods, announced soon after that it was ceasing all treatments.

Last month, as Karmazin planned to open infusion clinics in New York and elsewhere, he explained the provenance of his start-up and his hopes for success. But now that the federal government has gotten involved, his dream may instead seem like a cautionary tale one in which America’s perpetual obsessions of youth and technology joined together for one fantastical, and ultimately doomed, moment.

Testing whether young plasma can breathe new life into older patients is fairly unremarkable in the medical world. Scientists have been running controlled anti-ageing and rejuvenation tests for a century but on rodents, not people.

For 150 years, scientists have been stitching together old mice and young mice to allow their blood to pump through each others veins. The practice, called parabiosis, often resulted in lab rats contracting infections and dying, and in the 1970s it was largely discarded. But advances over the past 15 years have revived the technique. Now a days, parabiosis pairs are sniffing around cages in university laboratories across America.

Karmazin said he had treated 150 patients. Their blood was tested in the days before the treatment and one month after it, allowing a comparison of biomarkers. He said he found precancerous cells and amyloids, which indicate Alzheimers, had fallen by up to 20 per cent post-treatment. He provided no evidence to support the claim.

The possibility of human longevity has been a popular hobby in Silicon Valley. Billionaire tech entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, Y Combinator president Sam Altman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have been pouring money into bio-engineering start-ups. The tech industry’s desire to cheat death was even lampooned in a 2017 episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley. It showcased human-to-human parabiosis, with a young blood boy directly transfusing his blood into a wealthy, ageing recipient.

Published on February 25, 2019
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