Peter Thiel, billionaire tech investor, has revealed a somewhat unsavory interest in the blood of the young. Thiel, like many other Silicon Valley billionaires, is interested in prolonging life expectancy and escaping death. But, unlike Google’s Calico project, or Oracle Founder Larry Ellison’s $430 million foundation to fight aging, Thiel has a particular interest in medical vampirism.
Thiel’s interest, he has said, is primarily personal. In the past he has taken human-growth hormones and investigated calorie-restricting diets. Now he is interested in parabiosis, the practice of using blood transfusions from young people to promote longevity. In an interview with Inc magazine it emerged that a member of his venture capital company has reached out to the Monterey, California, company Ambrosia. Ambrosia recently conducted a trial entitled "Young Donor Plasma Transfusion and Age-Related Biomarkers”, in which blood from the under-25s was injected into the over-35s. Each participant was required to pay $8,000 to participate in the study.
In scientific circles the potential of blood (or at least certain kinds of blood) as a panacea to aging is established. In 2006, Nature published a piece entitled “Stem Cells, Aging, and the Quest for Immortality" on how stem cells can be harnessed in the war against death. Research into parabiosis began in the 1950s but is only now beginning to take hold in the academy. In addition to the Ambrosia trial, more advanced testing is taking place in Korea and China.
What sounds like modern scientific vampirism has a much lengthier history. In the winter of 1668 an English traveller named Edward Browne was touring Vienna. He happened to attend several public executions, which he recorded in his journal, perhaps because of the unusual method of beheading criminals while they were seated. Immediately after one such beheading, Browne recorded that a man dashed forward with a pot. He filled the pot with the fresh blood spouting out of the neck of the executed man, drank it, and ran away. Browne didn’t bat an eyelid. He added nonchalantly, “This he did as a remedy against the falling-sickness. I have read of some who have approved the same medicine and heard of others who have done the like in Germany.”
What Browne witnessed was bargain-basement corpse medicine (the use of human bodies to cure disease and prolong life). The origin of these practices lies in the widely held belief that animal and human blood has special life-giving and, more importantly, life-containing properties. Because blood was considered the conduit of the soul it was a particular potent remedy in ancient, medieval, and early modern medicine. The blood of gladiators and virgins was preferred in ancient Greece, while the blood of young men was more popular in Renaissance Europe. Leonardo da Vinci is one of the more famous corpse medics, having once stated that “we preserve our life with the death of others.”
The poor, who could not afford expensive apothecary compounds gleaned from society’s best, gathered at the sites of execution, where they paid the executioner small sums for cups of still-warm blood for personal use. Ingestion was the only way to harness blood’s power. As gruesome as they may seem, these treatments were not the domain only of the poor, the superstitious, or the unscrupulous kinds of doctors who robbed graves. These cures were administered to the wealthy and the religious. A recipe from a Franciscan apothecary dated to 1679 provides instructions for making blood marmalade. While medical theories changed and developed during this period, an element common to all was that the freshly acquired blood of the strong or pure was the most powerful.
In his interview Thiel acknowledged that the lack of interest in parabiosis in the medical community has often been due to society’s discomfort with the practice. It’s a cultural anxiety that Thiel would like to see displaced, but it is one that is rooted in power and exploitation as well as mere squeamishness. As the Inc article observed, it’s disquieting to imagine a business model for parabiosis on a grand scale. Ambrosia can obtain blood from blood-banks because it is conducting a trial, but how and from whom would the blood supply come if parabiosis became more common? You have to worry that it would come not from altruistic teenagers, but rather from the poor, the socially disenfranchised, and people living in developing countries.
In fact there’s a growing concern that if life-extension technologies can be developed they would be available only for the wealthy and would come at a cost that would be shouldered by everyone. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study 79% of people thought that everyone should be able to get radical life extension treatments, but 66% of the same group thought that they would only be available to the wealthy, and the same percentage worried that longer life would strain natural resources.
Even if the blood of the young can sustain the blood of aging rich people, we have to worry whether it should.