Heterochronic parabiosis, linking the circulatory systems of an old and a young mouse, benefits the old mouse in that it reduces some measures of aging. Researchers initially focused on possible beneficial signals in young tissues and blood, but more recent research suggests that the outcome may occur because harmful signals present in old tissues and blood are diluted. If this is the primary mechanism, it would explain why transfusion of young blood to old individuals does not appear produce similar effects in animal studies. Here researchers claim evidence for one such harmful signal:
The effects of blood on ageing were first discovered in experiments that stitched young and old mice together so that they shared circulating blood. Older mice seem to benefit from such an arrangement, developing healthier organs and becoming protected from age-related disease. But young mice aged prematurely. Such experiments suggest that, while young blood can be restorative, there is something in old blood that is actively harmful. Now researchers seem to have identified a protein that is causing some of the damage, and have developed a way to block it.
The researchers found that the amount of a protein called VCAM1 in the blood increases with age. In people over the age of 65, the levels of this protein are 30 per cent higher than in under-25s. To test the effect of VCAM1, researchers injected young mice with blood plasma taken from older mice. Sure enough, they showed signs of ageing: more inflammation in the brain, and fewer new brain cells being generated, which happens in a process called neurogenesis. Blood plasma from old people had the same effect on mice. When researchers injected plasma from people in their late 60s into the bodies of 3-month-old mice - about 20 years in human terms - the mice's brains showed signs of ageing. These effects were prevented when researchers injected a compound that blocks VCAM1. When the mice were given this antibody before or at the same time as old blood, they were protected from its harmful effects.
Some teams have begun giving plasma from young donors to older people, to see if it can improve their health, or even reduce the effect of Alzheimer's disease. But for the best chances of success, we'll also need to neutralise the damaging effects of old blood. Other researchers comment that it is "surprising that a single protein seems to have such a huge effect," but the results need to be replicated by another lab. A drug that protects people from the effects of old blood would be preferable to plasma injections. Should transfusions from young donors turn out to be effective, it would be difficult to scale this up as a treatment for all. Drugs that block harmful proteins in our own blood would be cheaper, safer and more accessible.