The Food and Drug Administration is officially not a fan of Elizabeth Báthory. On Tuesday, the agency sent out an advisory warning people to avoid clinics and companies that promise to rejuvenate health with infusions of blood plasma taken from young people. Among other things, they noted, there’s no proof these treatments do anything at all, let alone that they reverse the sands of time.
The rationale behind such a treatment isn’t entirely ludicrous. Scientists really have found that the blood of young, healthy people tends to look noticeably different from the blood of older people. Young blood is more filled with molecules and proteins associated with a robust immune system, a better ability to heal, and other markers of good health. And in some experiments, researchers have found that older mice infused with the blood of younger mice become healthier.
Companies have now rushed to make money selling infusions of young plasma (the yellowish liquid part of blood that carries red blood cells and other proteins throughout our body). The major problem, as the FDA points out, is that we have no idea if this procedure even works.
“Simply put, we’re concerned that some patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies,” FDA head Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. “Such treatments have no proven clinical benefits for the uses for which these clinics are advertising them and are potentially harmful.”
Blood transfusions are being studied not only as a general anti-aging treatment, but as a way to stave off everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease. But while some of these experiments are being carried out with care and might even lead to genuine advances, the early commercialization of the treatment has led to people paying thousands of dollars to “enroll” in shady clinical trials supposedly meant to provide evidence they can work.
For one, people normally don’t pay to enroll in a legitimate clinical trial, since that can easily bias everyone involved (a person might be more likely to believe a treatment worked if they spent their life savings on it, for instance). But more worrying is that these trials aren’t often blinded or properly controlled. So even if the infusions did work, no one would be able to use these findings as credible evidence.
Leaving that aside, having someone else’s blood pumped through your veins isn’t exactly risk-free. There’s the very small but real chance of infection, of course, but people can also have allergic reactions to donated plasma. And when people are rapidly infused with a large amount of plasma at once, there’s also the risk that it can literally flood the circulatory system. That flooding can lead to high blood pressure, swelling, and possibly even serious damage to the lungs, due to a buildup of fluid.
The FDA isn’t totally closing the book on young blood infusions. But volunteers who are still willing to brave the experimental treatment should look out for any scientists or clinics making grand promises about their potential. And if you are going to enroll in a trial, you should pick one being run by scientists and organizations who have obtained permission from the FDA to study the treatment, as well as approval from an institutional review board, or IRB. IRBs are essentially independent ethics committees formed by universities or other groups that have to approve any research involving human subjects.
“As a general matter, we will consider taking regulatory and enforcement actions against companies that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health with uncontrolled manufacturing conditions or by promoting so-called ‘treatments’ that haven’t been proven safe or effective for any use,” Gottlieb said.