November 6, 2017
If the fountain of youth exists, a new study conducted by Stanford University suggests the source might be young people’s blood. The PLASMA study, presented on Saturday at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease meeting in Boston, found that Alzheimer’s patients who were given plasma from young people showed small improvements in daily tasks like dressing themselves.
The study was very small—a nine-person group received the plasma and an equal group received a saline placebo—and based on previous animal studies in which 20-month-old mice received blood from three-month old mice. In human years, said study author Sharon Sha, 20 months corresponds to 65 years old; three months corresponds to 20 years old. After receiving the transfusion, the older mice had fewer errors on a water maze. In earlier experiments, the mice were connected to each other’s blood systems by a process called parabiosis. In those experiments, researchers observed the younger mice to show signs of older metabolism and chronic disease. Those results inspired the human study.
The 18 volunteers with mild and moderate Alzheimer’s came in weekly for four weeks to receive plasma from the Stanford Blood Bank. Then, after a six-week “wash-out” period, they received another four-week treatment of plasma or placebo, whichever they had not received during the first treatment.
While there was no documented cognitive improvement, caregivers surveyed said the patients who received plasma showed significant improvements in independence—things like tracking finances and grocery shopping. The study did not measure memory or any biomarkers of Alzheimer’s, like beta-amyloid levels in the brain.
Of course, the study presents potential ethical complications: Should we be asking young people to donate plasma to older people? Will a demand for young plasma encourage young people to auction their blood for high prices, much like how the egg donation industry works?
These are questions Sha is taking into consideration. As far as next steps, her team is hoping to identify the factors that made the plasma beneficial. “Certain patients responded rather than the entire group,” said Sha at a presentation on Saturday. “So, identifying what’s in their plasma or what they received would be next steps.”
The full study, which was sponsored by Alkahest, a biotechnology company that holds intellectual property associated with the treatment, can be read here.