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.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.