Is It Wrong for Old People to Receive Blood Infusions From Teenagers?

Parabiosis may be bunco, but I'm happy to let rich people pay to find out.


Parabiosis, a nascent and unproven medical procedure that involves transfusing the blood of young people into the bodies of older people, is in the news once again.

CNBC reports that for $8,000, a startup called Ambrosia will transfuse blood from donors under the age of 25 to buyers over the age of 35.

And once again, folks are reacting with astounding contempt. You can take a look at the outrage here. In a nutshell: This is exploitation. This is vampirism. This is a profound misuse of money. This is where capitalism takes us.

We don't yet know if parabiosis reverses or even slows aging. Reason's Ron Bailey has chronicled the practice since it first popped up on his life-extension radar, after studies found that connecting the circulatory system of a young mouse to that of an old mouse "stimulates the worn-out stem cells in old mice to start proliferating again to repair damaged tissues." (Researchers are also studying the effects of umbilical cord blood plasma as a substitute for the blood of 20-somethings.)

Like Ron, I think this is fascinating and exciting science, even if it turns out to be the 21st century analog to Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard's experiments with the macerated testicles of guinea pigs and dogs. An elderly Brown-Séquard injected said concoction into his own body thinking it would make him stronger.

His methods were sloppy and wrong, but his underlying assumption—that certain glands within the body secreted critical chemicals—were correct. Reviled across Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s, his experiments nevertheless helped pave the way for treatments for hypothyroidism, Type I diabetes, and Addison's disease.

More than a century later, you'd think we'd be a little more tolerant of the circuitous routes that researchers take from hunch to value creation. Have you seen the Wright Brothers' first crack at a plane? It sucked. And yet, people are freaking out about parabiosis for reasons that don't stand up to scrutiny.

The blood Ambrosia uses comes from blood banks, which have always sold blood to cover their operating expenses. That means Ambrosia, and its customers, are helping offset the costs of collecting the blood that goes to people who will die without it.

The donors who provide the blood certainly aren't any worse off: According to the Red Cross, "plasma from your donation is replaced within about 24 hours. Red cells need about four to six weeks for complete replacement." I see nothing in the organization's FAQ that suggests a worse outcome for the donor if the recipient is a tech bro rather than a gunshot victim.

Might this be bad for the people buying the blood? Perhaps. Though if it's a problem for healthy people to receive vetted blood transfusions, I can't imagine it's any better for people whose immune systems have been compromised by the trauma of an accident or surgery. It is certainly not the most dangerous thing for which one can pay $8,000. (My entry would be this year's Yamaha SCR 950. Mama mia!)

Is it a scam to pay $8,000 for something that may have absolutely no effect on quality or length of life? I suspect if you have $8,000 to spend on this (it's not covered by insurance, obviously), you are also capable of conducting a cost-benefit analysis of an unproven, exploratory treatment. I don't care for Thiel, but I'm also not worried about him going broke buying blood.

Is it bad that rich people in Silicon Valley are spending money on this, when so many people with much less money are suffering from ailments more real and troubling than the prospect of not living to 120? That, I think, is what really drives people to say awful things about it.

Last year, Inc. magazine reported that "if there's one thing that excites Peter Thiel"—Silicon Valley's most prominent supervillain—"it's the prospect of having younger people's blood transfused into his own veins." A lot of people loathe Thiel, for some very good reasons. A few weeks back on HBO's Silicon Valley, that show's most prominent villain, insanely wealthy Hooli founder Gavin Belson, was seen receiving a transfusion from a beautiful young lad, whom the show's nominal hero refers to as a "blood boy." Belson, played by Matt Ross, once threw a sloth down a flight of stairs. He is the epitome of unlikeable.

And so parabiosis has become a stand-in for the things villainous rich people can buy that the rest of us can't. It's right up there with bigger houses, hired help, immunity from prosecution, gaudy weddings, and entire elections (you'd think we'd be happier when they can't buy those).

If parabiosis is bunko, then the people who'd prefer to control how rich people spend their money should rejoice. Rich people are going to do with their money what they want (because they always have); and in this scenario, they're wasting it.

But if rich people paying for parabiosis leads to some valuable insights about improving quality of life in old age, then please consider ordering the humble pie for dessert. Age-related disorders are pressing right now, and will become more so as we journey into a future in which humans live longer, but not necessarily better, lives.

There are nearly a billion humans over the age of 60 on the planet today. There will be more than two billion of them by 2050. I hope to still be around then. I'm sure many critics of parabiosis hope to as well. If the tech bros of Silicon Valley want to offer up their bodies and their money in hopes of making that possible, why would any of us discourage them?