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.
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.