The world of dementia research erupted into cheers when news of the first real victory in a clinical trial against Alzheimer's Disease in over a decade was revealed last October.
By connecting the circulatory systems of a young and an old mouse, the regenerative potential of the young mouse decreased, and the old mouse became healthier.
Alzheimer's treatments have been famously difficult to develop; 99 percent of the 200-plus such clinical trials since 2000 have utterly failed. Even the few slight successes have failed to produce what is called 'disease modifying' agents that really help people with the disease. This makes the success, by the midsize Spanish pharma company Grifols, worthy of special attention.
However, the specifics of the Grifols treatment, a process called plasmapheresis, are atypical for another reason - they did not give patients a small molecule or an elaborate gene therapy, but rather simply the most common component of normal human blood plasma, a protein called albumin. A large portion of the patients' normal plasma was removed, and then a sterile solution of albumin was infused back into them to keep their overall blood volume relatively constant.
So why does replacing Alzheimer's patients' plasma with albumin seem to help their brains? One theory is that the action is direct. Alzheimer's patients have low levels of serum albumin, which is needed to clear out the plaques of amyloid that slowly build up in the brain. Supplementing those patients with extra albumin boosts their ability to clear the plaques and improves brain health. However, there is also evidence suggesting that the problem may be something present in the plasma of the sick person and pulling their plasma out and replacing it with a filler, like an albumin solution, may be what creates the purported benefit.
This scientific question is the tip of an iceberg that goes far beyond Alzheimer's Disease and albumin, to a debate that has been waged on the pages of scientific journals about the secrets of using young, healthy blood to extend youth and health.
This debate started long before the Grifols data was released, in 2014 when a group of researchers at Stanford found that by connecting the circulatory systems of a young and an old mouse, the regenerative potential of the young mouse decreased, and the old mouse became healthier. There was something either present in young blood that allowed tissues to regenerate, or something present in old blood that prevented regeneration. Whatever the biological reason, the effects in the experiment were extraordinary, providing a startling boost in health in the older mouse.
After the initial findings, multiple research groups got to work trying to identify the "active factor" of regeneration (or the inhibitor of that regeneration). They soon uncovered a variety of compounds such as insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), CCL11, and GDF11, but none seemed to provide all the answers researchers were hoping for, with a number of high-profile retractions based on unsound experimental practices, or inconclusive data.
Years of research later, the simplest conclusion is that the story of plasma regeneration is not simple - there isn't a switch in our blood we can flip to turn back our biological clocks. That said, these hypotheses are far from dead, and many researchers continue to explore the possibility of using the rejuvenating ability of youthful plasma to treat a variety of diseases of aging.
But the bold claims of improved vigor thanks to young blood are so far unsupported by clinical evidence.
The data remain intriguing because of the astounding results from the conjoined circulatory system experiments. The current surge in interest in studying the biology of aging is likely to produce a new crop of interesting results in the next few years. Both CCL11 and GDF11 are being researched as potential drug targets by two startups, Alkahest and Elevian, respectively.
Without clarity on a single active factor driving rejuvenation, it's tempting to try a simpler approach: taking actual blood plasma provided by young people and infusing it into elderly subjects. This is what at least one startup company, Ambrosia, is now offering in five commercial clinics across the U.S. -- for $8,000 a liter.
By using whole plasma, the idea is to sidestep our ignorance, reaping the benefits of young plasma transfusion without knowing exactly what the active factors are that make the treatment work in mice. This space has attracted both established players in the plasmapheresis field – Alkahest and Grifols have teamed up to test fractions of whole plasma in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's – but also direct-to-consumer operations like Ambrosia that just want to offer patients access to treatments without regulatory oversight.
But the bold claims of improved vigor thanks to young blood are so far unsupported by clinical evidence. We simply haven't performed trials to test whether dosing a mostly healthy person with plasma can slow down aging, at least not yet. There is some evidence that plasma replacement works in mice, yes, but those experiments are all done in very different systems than what a human receiving young plasma might experience. To date, I have not seen any plasma transfusion clinic doing young blood plasmapheresis propose a clinical trial that is anything more than a shallow advertisement for their procedures.
The efforts I have seen to perform prophylactic plasmapheresis will fail to impact societal health. Without clearly defined endpoints and proper clinical trials, we won't know whether the procedure really lowers the risk of disease or helps with conditions of aging. So even if their hypothesis is correct, the lack of strong evidence to fall back on means that the procedure will never spread beyond the fringe groups willing to take the risk. If their hypothesis is wrong, then people are paying a huge amount of money for false hope, just as they do, sadly, at the phony stem cell clinics that started popping up all through the 2000s when stem cell hype was at its peak.
Until then, prophylactic plasma transfusions will be the domain of the optimistic and the gullible.
The real progress in the field will be made slowly, using carefully defined products either directly isolated from blood or targeting a bloodborne factor, just as the serious pharma and biotech players are doing already.
The field will progress in stages, first creating and carefully testing treatments for well-defined diseases, and only then will it progress to large-scale clinical trials in relatively healthy people to look for the prevention of disease. Most of us will choose to wait for this second stage of trials before undergoing any new treatments. Until then, prophylactic plasma transfusions will be the domain of the optimistic and the gullible.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby