A good day for medical ethicists

Great news! Sort of. I watched this trickle through the scientific press for a while and I guess I can no longer ignore it.

Researchers in the US are closing in on a therapy that could reverse harmful ageing processes in the brain, muscles, heart and other organs.

[…]The infusions had a striking impact on the animals’ performance. Aged rodents … found their way around a water maze as well as six-month-old mice, and reacted like three-month-olds in an experiment that tested how well they remembered a threatening environment.

[…] Chemicals … encouraged the growth of blood vessels in the aged brain, which improved circulation in the organ. They also boosted the numbers of neural stem cells, which mature into brain cells. Older mice that received [it] had a sharpened sense of smell, able to distinguish odours as well as young animals could.

To reverse aging even a little bit sounds like a miracle. And not a congratulations-now-you-have-cancer miracle like telomerase but the sort of thing an actual person could use. You might ask why I feel a little trepidation about this news hitting it big.

Hopes have been raised by three separate reports released by major journals on Sunday that demonstrate in experiments on mice the dramatic rejuvenating effects of chemicals found naturally in young blood.

Infusions of young blood reversed age-related declines in memory and learning, brain function, muscle strength and stamina, researchers found. In two of the reports, scientists identified a single chemical in blood that appears to reverse some of the damage caused by ageing.

So we can (maybe, pending clinical trials) revitalize the elderly. It might even be easy. The caveat is pretty big though. We already know that young blood does the trick (in mice), so unless the purified protein (GDF11) works nearly as well and does not cost much you will soon see a demand for blood from lots and lots of children.

That may sound like a stretch. I hope so, but think about the potential market demand. It would make viagra look like a niche product. Literally every living person will want it. Can they make enough synthetic GDF11 to satisfy all that demand? Can they make it cheap enough for everyone to afford? Anyone with a pamphlet’s worth of medical knowledge and a centrifuge can make blood plasma. Much as we collectively do not want to see a black market show up, a lot of us individually will have a hard time not willing one into existence.

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92 replies
  1. 1
    karen says:

    What’ll eventually happen is what always happens. The rich may be cured of Altzheimer’s,dementia and other diseases that are associated with aging. Everyone else will just die.

  2. 2
    efgoldman says:

    Wasn’t there a scifi story, decades ago, built around this premise?

  3. 3
    JPL says:

    I thought Obama’s death panels meant the youth would be given blood transfusions of the elderly. It was a fascinating article though.

  4. 4
    WereBear says:

    It’s so… Dracula.

  5. 5

    In no way am I any sort of medical professional or expert, but if this works… wow.

    And yes, it does sound like something from an episode of Star Trek.

  6. 6
    Baud says:

    I’m not waiting. Gonna start looking for babies first thing in the morning.

  7. 7
    Lee Rudolph says:

    A poem by William Empson, just because of the third stanza.

    Missing Dates

    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
    It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

    It is not your system or clear sight that mills
    Down small to the consequence a life requires;
    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

    They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
    Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

    It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
    Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

    Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
    The complete fire is death. From partial fires
    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

    It is the poems you have lost, the ills
    From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


  8. 8
    Elizabelle says:

    It’s why Keith Richards is still with us?

    And laughing at the early demise of many in the Dave Clark Five, clean living souls they purportedly were.

  9. 9
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @WereBear: Yeah, I am pretty sure that some of the side effects include inability to tolerate sunlight and a need to sleep in a coffin lined with dirt from one’s home country.

  10. 10
    Thomas says:

    The protein can be made by recombinant technology, don’t need to drain children of their blood. It would be surprising if this is the only protein involved here though, will be exciting to see what other, if any, proteins are at work here

  11. 11
    Suzanne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Are you on Book of Faces?

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    I am.

  13. 13
    Roger Moore says:

    If GDF11 does the trick, it shouldn’t be too hard to make enough of it. It’s a cytokine, which means it’s a low abundance protein. It shouldn’t be a lot harder to manufacture in bulk than insulin.

  14. 14
    Suzanne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Send me a PM. I’m friends with John and Yutsy.

  15. 15
    Elizabelle says:


    Young blondes will start going missing in ever greater numbers.

    CNN’s ratings will skyrocket, I tell you.

    (‘Cuz it might be a while before they find that plane …)

  16. 16
    WereBear says:

    This is bad news for Fox News.

  17. 17
    Mnemosyne says:


    There have been a lot. Kurt Vonnegut had a great one, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”

  18. 18
    dmsilev says:

    @efgoldman: Larry Niven’s Known Space universe had that idea as part of it’s background. Organs, not blood. One implication was that a whole bunch of crimes ended up warranting death sentences…

  19. 19
    Elizabelle says:


    Oh, I hope so!

  20. 20
    Tim F. says:

    @Thomas: Yes, as I pointed out. You can always synthesize a protein. No matter how cheap and easy you make it plasma will still cost a whole lot less.

  21. 21
    ericblair says:


    I’m not waiting. Gonna start looking for babies first thing in the morning.

    My kids are getting ten bucks a pop to play Dracula’s Victim. And ice cream afterwards.

  22. 22
    MomSense says:


    Actually, I once met an acquaintance/vendor of his and was asked if I could provide the elixir of youth. If you watched Friends, it tastes like cantaloupe. I happened to be 8 months pregnant at the time so it was a little too early.

  23. 23
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Suzanne: Is your middle name a form of precipitation?

  24. 24
    efgoldman says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I am pretty sure that some of the side effects include inability to tolerate sunlight and a need to sleep in a coffin lined with dirt from one’s home country.

    That’s me, already.

  25. 25
    Suzanne says:

    @MomSense: Dude, if I could sell that shit, I would pump non-stop. I’m kind of an awesome milk producer.

  26. 26
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I’m friends with John and Yutsy.

    There’s gotta be a way to monetize that.

  27. 27
    Suzanne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: It is.

  28. 28
    Roger Moore says:

    @Tim F.:

    No matter how cheap and easy you make it plasma will still cost a whole lot less.

    I don’t know if that’s true. Plasma has a lot of problems, like the need to screen for infectious diseases and competition from other legitimate uses, and plasma specifically from young people is going to be harder to get. If you can get away with small doses- and GDF11 will probably be something needed in quite small doses- it will probably be cheaper to synthesize it than to use plasma.

  29. 29
    TheMightyTrowel says:

    And we thought a return to the gilded age was bad, now we’re on the cusp of the .1% going full Bathory.

  30. 30
    Bobby B. says:

    It was “Countess Dracula” wasn’t it? Where Ingrid Pitt had to bathe in the blood of young girls to stay young.@efgoldman: Also a standard Mr Burns joke.

  31. 31
    MomSense says:


    Same here–totally missed my calling as a wet nurse!

  32. 32
    PaulW says:

    wasn’t there an episode of Babylon 5 where an evil scientist discovered immortality… and all it cost you was another person’s life?

  33. 33
    Poopyman says:

    Well, this explains Dick Cheney’s continued existence.

    OTOH, college kids have sold their plasma for beer money since forever. I suspect the market will pick up.

    On the flip side, I notice that the majority of my fellow platelet donors are on the wrong side of 50. I wonder if their “old blood” has an impact on younger recipients.

  34. 34
    Thomas says:

    @Tim F.: no IRB in the world, or at least in the US, would allow investigators to draw enough plasma to do the research that might be done, for example, on plasma from adult donors. So I believe the bulk of the research will eventually be done in the lab through recombination technology, and researchers will pay the cost. Same has been true for many cytokines, etc, that were originally identified in human plasma.

  35. 35
    Poopyman says:

    @Suzanne: Wow! Not too many guys have the middle name “virga”.

  36. 36
    WereBear says:

    @TheMightyTrowel: It crossed my mind.

  37. 37
    Suzanne says:

    @Poopyman: It’s actually “Graupel”.

  38. 38
    Tim F. says:

    @Roger Moore: True, small proteins (usually) do not cost much to make. That does not mean it will be cheap. Remember that whatever drug company will charge through the nose during the patent years to recoup r&d costs. Retail price will have almost literally nothing to do with manufacturing cost.

    Meanwhile with plasma you only find expensive quality control like virus screening on the regulated “white” market. I expect that enough people will want so badly that the other kind of market will pop up to meet demand.

  39. 39
    satby says:

    @MomSense: I always felt a bit more like Bossy the cow those days. The kid is 6’5″ though so there must have been some heavy duty protein going on (I’m 5’1:)

  40. 40
    gene108 says:

    The Red Cross had a blood drive at my high school every year. I’m not sure, if that is still a thing, but plenty of us signed up (we got out of class and got a cookie, literally got a cookie ’cause they took a lot of blood and folks needed the hit of sugar), so that maybe a way to get blood out of the youngs, though probably not on an industrial scale.

  41. 41
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @TheMightyTrowel: Nice. I’d forgotten her.

  42. 42
    Suzanne says:

    @MomSense: I remember a few times that my boobs got so full that I sprayed milk about three feet, like the world’s grossest firehose. Whenever I hear about people having issues with production, I cannot help but be slightly jealous. LOL.

  43. 43
    Howard Beale IV says:

    @PaulW: It was a device used for capital punishment which while killing the condemmed healed a dying person on the other end.

    And speaking of Babylon 5, JMS had a barnburner rant against the New Aristocracy on his Facebook page.

  44. 44
    RandomMonster says:

    We already know it works, Dick Cheney has been drinking the blood of babies for years.

  45. 45
    MomSense says:


    Hey I’ve got one that size, too. Still complaining of growing pains. Have the grocery budget to match!


    I used to do the same thing. We had a joke in the house where everyone would stand back and say “warning, contents under pressure”.

  46. 46
    NotMax says:

    The young mice used are the equivalent in human terms to about 20 years old. Hardly children.

  47. 47
    RepubAnon says:

    @PaulW: Indeed – Deathwalker. However, Deathwalker said the drug couldn’t be synthesized… now that we can grow mammalian cell cultures in big fermenters, it’s only a matter of finding the right gene sequence to introduce into some CHO cells in harvest the protein in large quantities.

    There was another series of science fiction stories by James Gunn (probably arising from the original 1950s blood research) of a young man whose blood gave one renewed youth – so long as you got a transfusion regularly. It was novelized as The Immortals

  48. 48
    Tim F. says:

    @Thomas: Once again, I am not too interested in how the legitimate market approves the eventual drug. People with access to the original research, aka everyone, will understand that plasma works at least as well as the purified protein. Odds are that the full benefit comes from more than one blood protein and simultaneous trials of two new drugs for one therapy is unheard of (I had this actual conversation with Pharma researchers during a job talk). People know perfectly well that a young blood transfusion at least does no harm so the usual concerns about untested therapies will hardly keep anyone away.

    @gene108: Imagine how happy it will make the Red Cross to lose all that blood to people who have no urgent need for it.

  49. 49
    Poopyman says:

    @Suzanne: Touché.

  50. 50
    RepubAnon says:

    @Howard Beale IV: I’d forgotten about the life-draining alien device that saved Ivanova at the cost of Marcus. I was thinking about DeathWalker’s anti agapic that could only be extracted from other intelligent life forms…

  51. 51
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    I am constantly both surprised and forgetful, so that’s probab…

    WHOA! What was that?

  52. 52

    @Suzanne: Get out. My kid struggled to learn spelling & definition, and was thrilled to be called on to define at state spelling bee.

    I was SURE Scripps made that one up.

    For reals?

  53. 53
    sharl says:

    This story was in the NYT as well: Young Blood May Hold Key to Reversing Aging

    I have to say that some of the responses to it are a bit troubling:

    Ryan Singel@rsingel 5h

    Of course, I’ll babysit your kids for free…

  54. 54
    trollhattan says:

    I have but one response: HURRY!

  55. 55
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:


    Thank you for that. IIRC, the story centered on a guy who was sentenced to give up his organs for speeding. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  56. 56
    Woodrowfan says:

    I saw her standing on the corner
    a yellow ribbon in her hair
    I couldn’t keep myself from crying
    I want your blood, want your blood, want your blood
    young bloooodd
    (boop boop boop)
    young blood,

  57. 57
    Woodrowfan says:

    how young do they need to be?> Will college kids work, because I can see a new way for my students to earn extra credit here…

  58. 58
    The Thin Black Duke says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: It was The Jigsaw Man, a short story from the classic SF anthology, “Dangerous Visions”.

  59. 59
    sparrow says:

    @Tim F.: OTOH blood transfusions are not exactly risk-free either. Adding criminal sanctions against, you know, draining blood from children would also make synthetic more attractive!

  60. 60
    Suzanne says:

    @PhoenixRising: Hah, no, it is not actually “Graupel”. It’s a far more prosaic form of precipitation that is actually a fairly common name, shared with a former WH Press Secretary.

  61. 61
    Poopyman says:

    @Suzanne: Katzendogs?

  62. 62
    Suzanne says:

    @Poopyman: That’s it. Right in one.

  63. 63
    Tim F. says:

    @Suzanne: Thank you for not saying the word itself. I had enough of that here to last me for a good goddamned while.

  64. 64
    Southern Goth says:

    So to keep the children safe, we’ll have to create a blood-transmitted virus that kills the olds.

    /hat-tip to Being Human

  65. 65
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Tim F.: @Suzanne: I apologize for introducing it as a conversation topic.

  66. 66
    Mnemosyne says:


    If you were willing to become a vegan (or at least claim to be one), you totally could sell your breast milk online. There’s a black market for it among vegan parents because all formula has animal protein it it, so some of them have decided that if they can’t breast-feed, they’ll buy breast milk from other vegans.

  67. 67
    VOR says:

    @efgoldman: Yes, Heinlein’s novel Methuselah’s Children.
    It was originally serialized in 1941 and published as a full length novel in 1958. The Howard Families have secretly achieved longevity through controlled breeding. The government learns of their long lives and assumes they have some sort of medical secret. The Families leave earth for decades, but when they return Earth has achieved similar longevity by frequent blood transfusions.

  68. 68
    Mnemosyne says:


    And here I was hoping it was “Simoom.”

    ETA: Or, given the rest of the conversation, “Haboob.”

  69. 69
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    @The Thin Black Duke:
    My most fulsome thanks. I have been a voracious reader my whole life and sci-fi was one of my favorite genres. Now that I’m in my dotage I tend to forget who wrote what and when. Dangerous Visions is still, in paperback, on the shelf.

  70. 70
    AlladinsLamp says:

    Now we know what to do with the children of the wealthy.

  71. 71
    Origuy says:


    Wasn’t there a scifi story, decades ago, built around this premise?

    Heinlein, Methusalah’s Children. His Howard Families, longlived through generations of selective breeding, were discovered and escaped the Earth in a sleeper ship. When they returned, Earth had figured out how to create synthetic blood that extended lifespan.

  72. 72
    sm*t cl*de says:

    So GDF-11 levels in mice decline as they age. Is this also true in humans?

  73. 73
    Tim F. says:

    @Mnemosyne: I get a little upset when folks go too far overboard with their birth plans and baby care. It is a human infant, not a protest sign. You (not you specifically) cannot wish away their specific needs because you want something else to be true any more than a Soviet agricultural boss can order the crops to grow. That story about vegans who killed their infant with soy milk makes me want to, well, Buddha wouldn’t approve.

  74. 74
    efgoldman says:


    WHOA! What was that?

    A squirrel.

  75. 75
    🌷 Martin says:

    Catholics will live forever.

  76. 76
    Joel says:

    Well, GDF11 ain’t hemoglobin, so making a recombinant form shouldn’t be quite that hard.

  77. 77
    Fair Economist says:

    This isn’t so revolutionary. Actually, I’m extremely skeptical. There have been reports before of blood transfusions from young mice making old mice somewhat healthier. Far more importantly, though, these are inbred mice. There have been a kazillion treatments that extend life in certain inbred lines that don’t help or even hurt with people. The megavitamin therapies that were so hot around 1990 are probably the best-known example. Basically, inbred mice are hopelessly messed up – they are made with dozens of generations of brother-sister matings, which have a similar effect on them as they do on us. It’s often possible to make these profoundly sick mice live longer with various treatments, but they turn out to be just correcting or compensating for the inbred defects. In outbred mice, and in humans, the treatments are useless or even harmful.

  78. 78
    Cain says:

    Ugh. Much as i would love to be “rejuvenated”, I can’t imagine what the effect it would have on the planet. There is a system and we are truly keeping ourselves out of it. They would need to figure out how to deal with the population growth. There just won’t be enough space for everyone and the animals.

    Frankly, I see a war coming over basic necessities. It won’t be using nuclear weapons since we need the land for sustenance. Ugh. It sounds great, but I see hell coming.

  79. 79
    jheartney says:

    Speaking of Sci-Fi, there was a season-long story in Torchwood called “Miracle Day,” in which suddenly it became impossible for humans to die. There were scenarios sketched out on how horrific this would quickly become, as the burgeoning population went through all the food stocks, and then proceeded to exist on the denuded Earth in eternal starvation (as it would be impossible to starve to death). In the story, they eventually resorted to cremating live people as this was the only method to get them out of the way.

    Science fiction has so many happy futures to present.

  80. 80
    Aleta says:

    But, won’t it take a lot of young mice to provide a transfusion for even one human? Anyway, it’s embarrassing that up til now we’ve been treating them like vermin.

  81. 81
    xenos says:

    Extending human life beyond 4 score and 10? Meh. Too many cranky old people in that scenario. Just imagine life on a planet with 60% tea partiers.

    Now, if someone could find a way to keep dogs healthy and fit for 40 years or so, that would be the best medical advance ever.

  82. 82
    Quaker in a Basement says:

    So a little young blood makes an old man young again. They needed science to figure this out?

  83. 83
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Oh, yeah, this seems to fit in here.

  84. 84
    chopper says:

    what could possibly go wrong?

  85. 85
    maya says:

    This development is just what Republicans have been looking for to blow Social Security out of the water. FOX News lives!

  86. 86
    sm*t cl*de says:

    Basically, inbred mice are hopelessly messed up – they are made with dozens of generations of brother-sister matings, which have a similar effect on them as they do on us.

    Even without that, senescence in mice is not a lot like senescence in large bald primates. They age and die of different things. Calorie restriction extends mouse lifespan but not us.

  87. 87
    J R in WV says:

    Young Blood!

    MUST HAVE Young Blood!


  88. 88
    Flatlander says:

    Finally, a reason for conservatives to support child welfare.

  89. 89
    Gindy51 says:

    @karen: And the movie Elysium moves ever so much closer to reality…

  90. 90
    Tata says:

    The first thing that’d happen is that developing world children would become blood farm animals for first world olds. Children’s prisons – same dealio. You know all those undocumented people imprisoned all over the US? Them too. If this is real, people are going to lose their minds.

  91. 91
    Matt says:

    This sounds like some straight-up Dark Crystal shit right here.

    But c’mon, Newt and Callista would make *great* Skeksis… :)

  92. 92
    Nicole says:

    @Tim F.:

    Imagine how happy it will make the Red Cross to lose all that blood to people who have no urgent need for it.

    The Red Cross might finally have to let go of their outdated ban against taking blood from people with hereditary hemochromatosis. It’s the weirdest thing- they won’t take it because it violates their rule against compensation for blood donation- since HH patients would otherwise have to pay for their phlebotomies, the Red Cross counts that as compensation. So, instead, health insurance pays for blood draws and then the blood gets thrown away, even though it’s just as safe as healthy non-HH blood for transfusions (other than being higher in iron, which is often actually a plus for people getting blood). It’s ridiculous. I’ve read that HH is so common that permitting HH blood to be taken at blood donation sites everywhere could end the blood shortage issue. And since most HH people aren’t diagnosed until health problems show up later in life, it wouldn’t compete with this apparently soon-to-be-expected demand for young blood.

    New York’s Blood Centers are perfectly happy to take that iron-laden blood, as are centers in a few other states. But the Red Cross controls almost half of the nations’ blood supply, and it just seems dumb not to encourage a symbiotic relationship between people who need to have their blood drawn and places that distribute it.

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