White mice in a lab. Photo: China Photos/Getty Images
Show Hide image

New research in blood sharing forces us to ask: how far will we go to beat ageing?

In mice, young blood can rejuvinate the arteries and even neurones of the old. But humans may be wary.

Be careful about going to the O2 cinema in Greenwich, London, this February: you might come across some horrors. There’s “the long and winding road of arterial stiffness”, for one thing, or “extracellular matrix degradation in extrinsic ageing”. No one wants to see “the ‘hidden’ epidemic of adult Alzheimer’s and neurological deaths” or “the ageing eye”. No one except the delegates at the 2015 Ageing Summit, that is.

It’s shocking what happens to the body as we get older. Ageing is a natural process but we don’t have to accept it – and we haven’t. Science has addressed nutritional issues and the causes of disease and decrepitude so successfully that life expectancy in the developed world has doubled in the past 200 years. But this was low-hanging fruit. Many questions remain. How far are we willing to go to beat ageing? What do we think, for instance, about blood-sharing rodents?

In a few labs across the world, there are mice that exist in pairs. Each has had an incision cut in its side, and the pairs have been stitched together in such a way that the healing process leaves them conjoined. Blood vessels grow between them and within a fortnight the mice are pumping each other’s blood. Researchers are performing these nightmarish experiments because they offer a possible means to curing disease and reversing processes associated with ageing. And, of course, because they can.

Scientists have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Read Samuel Pepys’s diary and you will find a discussion of related experiments carried out at the Royal Society in the 1660s. A group of researchers who included Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren would regularly transfuse blood between dogs, using a quill as a cannula, to see if the transfusion altered behaviour or physical features. Pepys suggested that they extend the technique, with “the blood of a Quaker to be let into an archbishop” in order to calm religious tensions.

Such research has gone in and out of fashion but it’s back in again today because the modern experiments, which pair old rodents with young ones, are producing fascinating results. Researchers have observed older mice being rejuvenated by blood from their younger partner. The reintroduction of chemicals that had long disappeared from the older body leads to new stem-cell activity: the cells begin to divide again, endowing the older mouse with new and vigorous muscle and liver tissue.

We have also seen increased neural growth in the older mice, early signs that exposure to young blood could rejuvenate the brain. That is why a group of elderly people are now receiving a weekly injection of blood plasma taken from healthy men under 30. Later this year, we should learn whether this regime has helped restore some brain function to the recipients, who are all Alzheimer’s sufferers.

Can we ever stave off decrepitude, ageing and death completely? That seems highly unlikely. Nonetheless, as delegates to the Ageing Summit will appreciate, it’s only natural to try. Evolution has equipped us with the ability to develop countermeasures to the failings it built into our bodies. Our evolved survival instinct makes us, as a species, put that ability to work.

Those paired-up mice have shown us that young blood reverses arterial stiffening, for example – we can go the other way down that long and winding road. So while bathing in the blood of young virgins is not an accepted route to new vigour, having it injected might be. One day, it may even be as commonplace as Botox. Whatever it takes, it’s clear that human beings won’t go down without a fight.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496