(KPIX 5) — We’re living longer but not necessarily better. A 2015 analysis shows more than 28 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer’s disease. The San Francisco Bay Area is epicenter for anti-aging treatments, including a surprising one that involves a new kind of Fountain of Youth: plasma.
That’s what 22-year-old Matthew Ryan was donating recently at the Blood Centers of the Pacific in San Francisco. Plasma is a critical component of blood. “I’ve always liked to help people,” said Ryan.
The pale, yellow fluid can help save the lives of patients suffering from burns, shock, or trauma.
Dr. Suchi Pandey, Chief Medical Officer and Director of Blood Centers of the Pacific. said plasma contains coagulation factors. But that’s not all. “The plasma fraction, it contains all of the antibodies that you have to fight infections,” said Pandey.
But now scientists believe this fluid may contain something far more spectacular: what’s flowing through the veins of young people may help restore old, aging brains.
“The very first reaction, I think in all of us, was skepticism,” remarked neuroscientist Dr. Karoly Nikolich, CEO of San Carlos-based biotech firm Alkahest.
Nikolich said plasma contains thousands of proteins or markers that do different jobs. But when his colleagues analyzed plasma samples donated by the young and old alike, they were astonished.
“We have, actually, now for the first time discovered that there are hundreds of proteins that change with aging,” said Nikolich.
He said young plasma is awash in special proteins that rejuvenate tissues. The scientists found as we age, these special rejuvenating proteins are replaced by damaging, inflammatory ones.
“What we see in aging plasma is that there is an increase of proteins that are inflammatory, that cause cell death,” said Nikolich.
The scientists did a simple experiment with some very old mice. In a special maze called a Barnes Maze which measures spatial learning and memory, old mice have a tough time remembering the one hole in the maze that allows them to escape. They emerge from this hole to find food, and then bright lights go on and the mice scramble to find the one way out.
On the Barnes Maze, the old mice couldn’t remember how they emerged. Instead, they are stuck exploring dead ends, and making lots of navigational errors..
When these mice are injected with young human plasma, they remember the exit, and head directly to it without making a mistake.
Not only that, after the injections, their brains had changed. “It’s pretty dramatic,” exclaimed Alkahest neuroscientist Sakura Minami.
On enlarged slides showing cross sections of mice brains that received the young human plasma, Minami pointed out newborn neurons that freshly sprouted in a part of the brain critical for memory and learning.
“We do treatment we see a doubling of that.” said Minami.
At Stanford University, Alkahest has now launched the first controlled, clinical study of young plasma in humans. It involves 18 people with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease. “The final results will come at the end of the year,” said Nikolich.
If this very small trial proves safe, the group will proceed with a second study, with more patients and a bigger dose. If the treatment eventually proves successful, the hope is that by growing healthy new neurons, the brain may clear itself.
“We are reducing this inflammatory process in the brain,” explained Nikolich
Alkahest would identify and manufacture the restorative proteins as there is not enough plasma in the world to treat all patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
As for Ryan, he knows people with Alzheimer’s and likes the idea of helping to come up with a solution. “I think it would be pretty incredible to say my plasma or anyone else’s plasma for that matter could help them make somewhat of a recovery,” he said.