New research published this week by two teams of scientists confirmed what Bram Stoker and countless philosophers, scientists, and cannibals have long posited — there’s an indisputable relationship between blood and aging.
The two independent studies — one by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco published in Nature Medicine and another published in Science by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute — found that certain proteins in blood counteract and even reverse the aging process in various tissues related to physical and cognitive ability.
The teams experimented by transferring blood plasma from young mice into old mice using a variety of processes. These included surgically conjoining their circulatory systems, as well as injecting plasma directly into veins and through sinuses located behind the eye.
'Blood has very specifically been recommended and used as a kind of vampire medicine for the elderly, those on their deathbed, or the severely ill.'
“When we added young blood, the older mice not only looked better, but they became cognitively better,” Saul Villeda, the principal investigator at UCSF’s Villeda Lab, told VICE News. “It’s like we can turn back the clock on some parts of aging.”
Villeda’s team noticed increased activity in the brain’s hippocampus of a protein called Creb, which helps regulate certain genes involved in cognition.
The Harvard team identified a blood protein from younger mice called GDF11 that it injected into older mice. Motherboard recently explained how GDF11 was found to reverse the effects of aging in the hearts, brains, and skeletal muscles of mice.
The young mice in both studies ranged between two and three months old, which is roughly equivalent to someone being in their 20s. The older mice were between 18 and 24 months old, approximately comparable to a person being in their 60s or early 70s. (The aging of mice slows down drastically over time, accounting for the disproportion in relative age ranges.)
Though hesitant to liken this research to modern-day vampirism, Villeda said he could see how the public might view the research as a bit ghoulish.
“This idea of something important being in blood is really old,” he said. “It’s in folklore, and it’s a part of many cultures. Since we’ve already inscribed something special in blood, what we’ve now been able to do is apply the scientific method and new technology to concepts that are very old.”
'The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino proposed that the elderly should suck blood "the way leeches do, an ounce or two from a vein on the left arm barely opened." '
Richard Sugg, a lecturer in English studies at Durham University who has authored several books about ancient medicine and human anatomy, told VICE News that while the manipulation of particular blood proteins is new, blood-related treatments date back thousands of years.
“In some cases, blood has very specifically been recommended and used as a kind of vampire medicine for the elderly, those on their deathbed, or the severely ill,” he said.
From epileptics drinking the blood of slain gladiators in the first century AD to physicians pouring the blood of three boys into an ailing Pope Innocent VIII’s mouth, there’s been a long, grisly history of human blood consumption and botched transfusions.
Sugg, who counts Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians among his various works, recalled that the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino “proposed that the elderly should suck blood ‘the way leeches do, an ounce or two from a vein on the left arm barely opened.’ ”
People in early modern Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia would also drink blood dripping from the bottom of scaffolds following public executions.
“This practice was so common that it was organized by the executioner and his servants, who sold the blood, and lent the cups from which to drink it,” he said.
J. Gordon Melton, a professor of religious studies at Baylor University who specializes in vampire culture, told VICE News that folklore surrounding the human consumption of blood has been around for as long as people have been dying.
“Early humans became aware that there’s a connection between blood and life,” he said. “You lose your blood and you die.”
But a lot of the conjecture surrounding the primitive studies of human blood and its practical use in medicine stopped after Austrian biologist Karl Landsteiner discovered the different blood groups in 1900.
“The idea of blood typing is a 20th Century phenomenon,” Melton said. “In Dracula, they give blood transfusions to the character Lucy, and that’s a very novel thing that happens. In Dracula, it’s cutting edge science that’s being put on display, but for us now, it’s normal.”
The history of experimenting with young and old mouse blood started in the 1950s with Cornell University professor Clive McCay. McCay noticed youthful effects in older mice who received the blood of younger mice, but failed to determine why.
Rather than market this breakthrough as a fountain of youth, Villeda and his team hope to explore the many unknown aspects of the experiment, including its effects on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
When asked whether the process might result in harmful side effects, Villeda said that too much is still unknown.
“We don’t know how long the effects last, we don’t know if it takes one injection or hundreds, and we really don’t know any of the adverse effects,” he said. “But I don’t want to take away from the fact that this still offers so much hope. For the scientific community, it’s an amazing example of various independent studies coming out and supporting each other.”
The practical applications of the discovery will be revealed in time.
“We just need the public to be patient, and let us find appropriate ways to translate our results toward human use,” Villeda said.
Meanwhile, all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are on Netflix. So there’s that.
Follow Maxwell Barna on Twitter: @Maxwell_BarnaNJ
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