Op-Ed

Quest for the Fountain of Youth remains a continually updated story

Statue of Ponce de Leon in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Statue of Ponce de Leon in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

Ponce de Leon sought it in Florida. Alexander the Great expanded his empire to find it in the East. Now, in the latest search for eternal youth, an American company hopes to make you vibrant and spry by having youthful blood coursing through your system.

Globally, all countries and people share this one desire for a healthier and slower aging process, but if past results are any indication of future prospects, the next elixir, cell therapy, or blood transfusion may be a futile and, perhaps, dangerous search for a panacea.

Ambrosia Medical is the latest entrant in the all-too-human race for immortality or, at least, healthy longevity. For $8,000-$12,000, the company says that it can deliver nutrient-rich, youthful blood to the aged, the hopeful and, maybe, the hypochondriac crowd. In vague terms and using limited research, the company intimates a promise of parabiosis — a rejuvenated vigor and refreshed immunity to both illness and aging.

No FDA rules control this therapy as blood transfusions are a common and approved practice in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Blood transfusions are A-OK as far as the health regulators are concerned, but elective blood-refreshing is a whole new game in the United States with no long-term, longitudinal studies to prove hoped-for improvements to health and energy.

While blood-refreshing seems to be a new idea in the United States, there have been recent and less successful variations to the modern-day safe and sanitary sanguinary-switching elsewhere. Not long ago, it happened in Eastern Europe, which led to disastrous consequences. I know. I saw some of the horrific results.

In 1989, I covered the Romanian revolution for Newsweek. The nation’s dictatorial leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, not only terrorized his nation with constant surveillance and brutality, his wife, Elena, a dubiously credentialed chemical scientist, acted as a shadow surgeon general who killed inconvenient medical research. Her practice led to suffering and death. Elena Ceausescu was, among other things, a staunch proponent of a widely practiced therapy of blood transfusions for babies.

Tainted blood and a lack of medical devices — including syringe and IV needle shortages — led to an AIDS epidemic for a tragically unknowable number of orphaned and infected babies throughout Romania. A practice that was supposed to strengthen children at birth by infusing mature blood through their umbilical cords became a method of infecting kids with a deadly virus.

Elena Ceausescu was portrayed as a visionary scientist by her husband’s government and propaganda machine. She turned out to be a modern-day Romanian vampire who eventually helped killed otherwise healthy babies with blood she sucked by government fiat.

Her case is extreme, but the unintended consequences of good intentions and bad science can often be deadly. Especially in countries without the same level of regulatory control and medical science standards that govern American practices. While terminal patients sometimes are begging for clinical trials and experimental therapies, the American system is a check against medical quacks and charlatans who are ready to prey on patients’ desperate hopes, claim miracle drugs, charge exorbitant prices for untested therapies and promise potential life-saving salves.

During Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Trump said that his signing the “Right to Try” bill last year was both an accomplishment and good news. He’s right. The bill was an important administration act allowing controlled, early and limited trials of potential pharmaceuticals for patients at the end of their rope.

“Limited,” however, is the key here. Since May 2018, only two patients have been allowed to undergo therapies under “Right to Try.” During the same period, however, administration policies and attitudes toward healthcare have added millions of Americans to the rolls of the uninsured. Social policy experimentation always has consequences.

And so do scientific experiments. Radical biological research and development in the service of a global chase for longer, healthier lives drove Dr. Trofim Lysenko’s agricultural experimentation, resulting in a Soviet famine. The pursuit of perfect health justified Chinese researcher He Jiankui’s unethical experimentation with CRISPR technologies that genetically edit embryos.

Even when the technological or clinical developments are innocently meant to ease the pain and change the game, the unpredictable complexity of our DNA sequencing and frail physiology can make a seemingly simple Theranos blood-drop diagnostic tests fraught with risk, inviting epic failure or massive fraud.

The latest young blood therapy will likely only go to risk-taking well-heeled early adopters and late stagers. Here’s an alternative: Live a happy life, love, practice random acts of kindness, drink in moderation and don’t smoke. It’s a lot easier than getting stuck with either a needle or a big blood bill.

Alternatively, follow former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s health regimen and his prescription for the poor without healthcare:

Drink your own urine. Desai died at the age of 99.

Dr. Markos Kounalakis is a political scientist, not a medical practitioner. He’s a McClatchy foreign affairs columnist and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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