The Cellular Secrets of “Young Blood” Are Starting to Be Unlocked
The quest for an elixir to restore youthful health and vigor is common to most cultures and has prompted much scientific research. About a decade ago, Stanford scientists stitched together the blood circulatory systems of old and young mice in a practice called parabiosis. It seemed to rejuvenate the aged animals and spawned vampirish urban legends of Hollywood luminaries and tech billionaires paying big bucks for healthy young blood to put into their own aging arteries in the hope of reversing or at least forestalling the aging process.
It was “kind of creepy” and also inspiring to Fabrisia Ambrosio, then thousands of miles away and near the start of her own research career into the processes of aging. Her lab is at the University of Pittsburgh but on this cold January morning I am speaking with her via Zoom as she visits with family near her native Sao Paulo, Brazil. A gleaming white high rise condo and a lush tropical jungle split the view behind her, and the summer beach is just a few blocks away.
Ambrosio possesses the joy of a kid on Christmas morning who can't wait to see what’s inside the wrapping. “I’ve always had a love for research, my father was a physicist," she says, but interest in the human body pulled her toward biology as her education progressed in the U.S. and Canada.
Back in Pittsburgh, her lab first extended the work of others in aging by using the simpler process of injecting young blood into the tail vein of old mice and found that the skeletal muscles of the animals “displayed an enhanced capacity to regenerate.” But what was causing this improvement?
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared.
The next step was to remove the extracellular vesicles (EVs) from blood. EVs are small particles of cells composed of a membrane and often a cargo inside that lipid envelope. Initially many scientists thought that EVs were simply taking out the garbage that cells no longer needed, but they would learn that one cell's trash could be another cell's treasure.
Metabolites, mRNA, and myriad other signaling molecules inside the EV can function as a complex network by which cells communicate with others both near and far. These cargoes can up and down-regulate gene expression, affecting cell activity and potentially the entire body. EVs are present in humans, the bacteria that live in and on us, even in plants; they likely communicate across all forms of life.
Being inside the EV membrane protects cargo from enzymes and other factors in the blood that can degrade it, says Kenneth Witwer, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and program chair of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles. The receptors on the surface of the EV provide clues to the type of cell from which it originated and the cell receptors to which it might later bind and affect.
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared; purified EVs alone were enough to do the job. The team also looked at muscle cell gene expression after injections of saline, young blood, and EV-depleted young blood and found significant differences. She believes this means that the major effect of enhanced regenerative capacity was coming from the EVs, though free floating proteins within the blood may also contribute something to the effect.
One such protein, called klotho, is of great interest to researchers studying aging. The name was borrowed from the Fates of Greek mythology, which consists of three sisters; Klotho spins the thread of life that her sisters measure and cut. Ambrosio had earlier shown that supplementing klotho could enhance regenerative capacity in old animals. But as with most proteins, klotho is fragile, rapidly degrading in body fluids, or when frozen and thawed. She suspected that klotho could survive better as cargo enclosed within the membrane of an EV and shielded from degradation.
So she went looking for klotho inside the EVs they had isolated. Advanced imaging technology revealed that young EVs contained abundant levels of klotho mRNAs, but the number of those proteins was much lower in EVs from old mice. Ambrosio wrote in her most recent paper, published in December in Nature Aging. She also found that the stressors associated with aging reduced the communications capacity of EVs in muscle tissue and that could be only partially restored with young blood.
Researchers still don't understand how klotho functions at the cellular level, but they may not need to know that. Perhaps learning how to increase its production, or using synthetic biology to generate more copies of klotho mRNA, or adding cell receptors to better direct EVs to specific aging tissue will be sufficient to reap the anti-aging benefits.
“Very, very preliminary data from our lab has demonstrated that exercise may be altering klotho transcripts within aged extracellular vesicles" for the better Ambrosio teases. But we already know that exercise is good for us; understanding the cellular mechanism behind that isn't likely to provide additional motivation to get up off the couch. Many of us want a prescription, a pill that is easy to take, to slow our aging.
Ambrosio hopes that others will build upon the basic research from her lab, and that pharmaceutical companies will be able to translate and develop it into products that can pass through FDA review and help ameliorate the diseases of aging.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.