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"Young Blood" Hype

“Young blood” transfusions have been marketed as a way to reverse everything from normal aging to memory loss and diseases like Parkinson’s. So is there something to it?

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

There has always been something a little bit magical about blood. Vampires suck the blood of their victims to maintain their immortality. To maintain her beauty and youth, Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th-century countess, reportedly bathed in the blood of the women she murdered. Companies in the United States will transfuse you with the blood of a young person to treat any number of diseases. But vampires don’t actually exist, Bathory probably didn’t bathe in the blood of her victims (although she probably did murder them) and there’s no evidence that getting a transfusion of a young person’s blood will cure anything.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently warned consumers against this practice after receiving reports that “young blood” transfusions were being marketed as a way to reverse everything from normal aging to memory loss and for diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. The FDA statement explains that “some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies” when there is no proof of benefit, and the potential for harm. Given that treatments can cost thousands of dollars, there was obvious reason for concern.

This proposed treatment involves transfusing the blood plasma of young, healthy patients. Plasma is essentially the liquid portion of human blood, with all the red blood cells and white blood cells removed, and contains proteins like antibodies and clotting factors. White blood cell transfusions are rarely used in medicine, and transfusing red blood cells into someone who is not anemic makes no sense. Plasma transfusions, though, are used quite frequently, generally for bleeding disorders or when certain clotting factors might be lacking. But why plasma transfusions would help in Parkinson’s disease or in PTSD is unclear, at least to me, and I assume to the FDA as well.

The problem of course is that transfusions of any kind are not benign. Allergic reactions, fever, complications from mismatched blood types and transfusion-related acute lung injury (TRALI) are all potential side effects, although they are rare. Infection from a contaminated blood supply is obviously a concern, especially when we remember that in the 1980s thousands of Canadians were infected with Hepatitis C and HIV. The lessons learned from this sad episode have at least resulted in better screening of donated blood. Today the risk of HIV infection via a blood transfusion is 1 in 21.4 million and for Hepatitis C 1 in 12.6 million. In life-threatening situations like a massive hemorrhage, a transfusion is certainly well worth the tiny risk. But the risk is not zero, and in situations where there can be no real benefit, this risk is hard to justify.

There is very little data to support the idea of young-blood transfusions. Mouse studies notwithstanding, studies like the Plasma for Alzheimer Symptom Amelioration Study (PLASMA) only had nine patients was designed to show that the practice was well tolerated, not that it actually worked. It is not without justification that the FDA announced that there was “no proven clinical benefit.”

When used correctly, transfusions can be life saving. Indeed, I would encourage those who are able to donate blood to do so when the opportunity arises. But transfusing people with the blood of young person, and charging them thousands of dollars for the privilege, exposes them to unnecessary risk and is frankly unjustifiable. Transfusing yourself with the blood of a young person probably won’t make you feel any younger than if you went out and bought a pair of stylish sunglasses. Sunglasses won’t prevent Alzheimer’s disease either, but they are cheaper, will make you look cool and, most important, they won’t expose you to a risk of hepatitis.


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