Blood transfusions can save lives, there’s no doubt about that. But can they also combat normal aging?
Over the past few years, an industry for fighting the aging process with “young blood” has been ramping up. In 2017, a tech start-up called Ambrosia began charging wealthy baby boomers up to $12,000 for two liters of young blood. Last month, a symposium hosted by the Maharaj Institute of Immune Regenerative Medicine entitled “The Young Blood Project: A New Paradigm in Medicine” charged participants $195 to learn about young-blood transfusions, which they could obtain for $285,000 as part of a future no-control medical trial. (The Food and Drug Administration has since issued warnings about the procedure, revealing the dubious science behind these so-called advances.)
These new business ventures share similar goals: to make as much money as possible from a wealthy generation desperate to cheat death. And to do that, they are sucking blood from a generation of Americans that is poorer than its recent predecessors: millennials.
The quest for eternal youth is not new, of course. What is new is the element of economic predation on both those who are aging and those who are young. That’s not how it had to be: the theory of young-blood transfusions began as an egalitarian program based on an ethics of human solidarity and care. But through the process of scientific disenchantment and monetization, it has transformed into the exploitative proto-industry it is today.
The idea behind young-blood transfusions began with Alexander Bogdanov, a prolific jack-of-all-trades at the turn of the 20th century. He was a Russian economist, culture theorist, science fiction writer and political revolutionary. A founder of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, he was soon expelled from the party following his criticism of the New Economic Policy and his assessment that the Communist Party leadership was becoming a re-branded autocracy.
As a scientist, he was one of the first people to believe that human rejuvenation and immortality might be possible through blood transfusion.
Bogdanov was convinced that the secret to human rejuvenation, and possible immortality, lay in a solidarity-based exchange of blood from the young to the old. He began to formulate this theory in his 1908 utopian science fiction novel “Red Star” by imagining a communist society on Mars using blood rejuvenation as “a comradely vital exchange that goes beyond ideology to the physiological sphere.”
In 1926, Bogdanov founded the Institute for Hematology and Blood Transfusions in the newly founded Soviet Union to begin experimenting with human rejuvenation. He experimented largely on himself — participating 11 times in experimental blood exchanges by the beginning of 1928 — and noted that following multiple treatments, his eyesight improved, his balding was suspended and friends commented that he looked 10 years younger.
However, in the spring of 1928, Bogdanov decided to exchange blood with a student who was suffering from malaria and tuberculosis in an attempt to assist with the student’s affliction. Although the student ended up making a full recovery after the transfusion, Bogdanov suffered a hemolytic transfusion reaction. Two weeks later, he was dead at the age of 54.
Bogdanov’s research intrigued Soviet scientists of the day, but his legacy was suppressed by Stalin, who found his experimentation with blood rejuvenation too utopian and an ideological threat to the state-sanctioned Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Despite this, his work influenced many in the Soviet leadership, bringing to their attention the benefits of transfusion medicine, particularly within the military. In the mid-1930s, before the outset of World War II, the Soviet Union had already developed a system of national centralized blood banks, something no other country had at the time.
Since then, blood transfusions have reshaped the medical profession, with World War II becoming a catalyst for transfusion innovation. Scientific advances such as blood fractionation (allowing blood to be separated into its constitutive parts) along with the subsequent freeze-drying of plasma (which allowed for easier storage and transportation) have made blood transfusions more accessible. As a result, accident recovery, cancer and surgery success rates skyrocketed as transfusion technologies made it easier for doctors to safely and effectively administer blood to patients.
Meanwhile, an industry selling “eternal youth” also expanded, moving from the physiological to the mechanical. Some studies have concluded that lifestyle choices, such as calorie restriction, are the secret to increased life span, while other more recent investigations from the 1980s and 1990s have highlighted the anti-aging potential of insulin and human growth hormones. But in the 21st century, Silicon Valley venture capitalists have taken the lead in championing the anti-aging cause, with the belief that high technology could be the harbinger of human immortality. Aside from companies focused on young-blood transfusions, anti-aging corporations such as Human Longevity, Calico and Elysium Health have deep ties to Silicon Valley giants such as Peter Diamandis, Peter Thiel and Google.
Transhumanists and biohackers heavily influenced the creation of start-ups such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which hopes to create a brain-machine interface that links all humans with each other and the Internet. Its ultimate goal is the uploading of human consciousness to a computer, allowing humans to shed the body and achieve techno-immortality. Cryopreservation organizations such as Alcor Life Extension Foundation and Cryonics Institute charge a large sum to freeze and store one’s body after death with the hopes that, with medical advances, they might be revived in the future.
And so, the medical innovations launched by Bogdanov seem to now be at odds with the quest for youth he also helped to popularize, because accessing such medical experiments comes with a hefty price tag that is out of reach for most Americans. The basis of Bogdanov’s theory of blood exchange — in contrast to that of companies such as Ambrosia — was about a voluntary, collective strategy for rejuvenation of the entire human race, not just for those that could pay for it.
The science behind young blood rejuvenation, and the other Silicon Valley immortality projects, might be shaky at best (both ethically and practically), but the political stakes motivating these projects are important to confront as technology advances. So far, the socioeconomic conditions surrounding technological innovation have only contributed to increased wealth inequality in high- and middle-income countries and played a part in the sharp rise in depression, feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Bogdanov pointed toward alternative pathways for science and technology. He imagined futures in which technological innovation led to a better quality of life for all. He also illuminated productive ways for us to focus our curiosity and, ultimately, encouraged us to ask a fundamental question: What are the reasons for developing technology and whom should it benefit?
Perhaps a set of century-old ideas from a Russian revolutionary and polymath can usher us toward the right direction.