This October, a clinical trial is set to begin in which patients with Alzheimer’s disease will be given blood from younger people in the hope that it will improve their cognition.
While this may sound a little odd, there is method behind the madness. Several previous studies in mice have demonstrated the rejuvenating capabilities of young mouse blood. Old mice given young blood showed improvements in the health of various organs, and one study even found that it can improve cognitive function.
Taking this one step further, Stanford scientists injected blood plasma from young humans into old mice, and it was found to have the same rejuvenating benefits as young mouse blood.
“We saw these astounding effects,” lead researcher Tony Wyss-Coray told New Scientist. “The human blood had beneficial effects on every organ we’ve studied so far.”
Scientists discovered that a blood protein called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) is a key player in this rejuvenation process. GDF11 levels decrease with age in both mice and humans, but scientists aren’t sure why this happens. Researchers therefore wondered whether boosting GDF11 levels in humans would have similar rejuvenating effects in older people, so they designed a clinical trial to find out.
The trial will involve giving blood plasma donated by people under the age of 30 to patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive function will be assessed both before and after the transfusion, and family members or carers will be asked to report any improvements.
According to Wyss-Coray, gaining approval for the trial was relatively straightforward since blood transfusions are performed all the time in medicine. Given the impressive track record of young blood in mice, the researchers hopeful that they will see rapid improvements, but we know all too well that what happens in animals does not necessarily reflect what happens in humans.
While the idea may sound great, experts in the field have pointed out that even if the trial yields promising results, the treatment is not viable in the long term given the large quantities of blood required. However, researchers may be able to avoid this excessive demand for blood if they are able to identify the components of human blood that are mediating the positive effects.
“It would be great if we could identify several factors that we could boost in older people,” Wyss-Coray said. “Then we might be able to make a drug that does the same thing. We also want to know what organ in the body produces these factors. If we knew that, maybe we could stimulate that tissue in older people.”
While we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves just yet, Wyss-Coray believes that this kind of treatment could potentially be useful in a number of diseases. “Blood might contain the fountain of youth after all,” he says. “And it is within us all- that’s the crazy thing. It just loses its power as we age.”