Vampire Aristocrats, Young Blood, Eternal Youth

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In the study of longevity, researchers turned to a macabre and shocking experiment called parabiosis where two animals are sewn together. It turns out that if you connect an old mouse to a young mouse, the old mouse grows young again. Nobody likes animal research (and content warning, obviously, this will be gross but not explicit). But, for now, understanding biology means we need to study live animals. And this study revealed something important, even if it sounds like some weird vampire stuff. This essay is also available in YouTube form.

Young blood makes old creatures young again. There’s nothing supernatural about this, but it might SEEM like black magic. Ultimately, there’s some strange parallels in vampire mythology: it relates to immortality and inequality.

Parabiosis experiments have been known since the 19th century. In the 21st century, old mice were sewn to young mice and the old mice were rejuvenated. It sounds a little like vampirism (without the fangs or sparkles).  The old creature seems to steal life through the blood of the young. There is a connection between real science and vampire folklore. Vampire stories express our anxieties about scientific progress, mortality, and the parasitic nature of wealthy aristocrats.

The science of lifesaving transplants started out with parabiosis experiments. In the nineteenth century, alleged vampires were still having their hearts cut out to prevent their rise from the grave. Even with that backdrop of superstition, scientists knew that blood could sometimes be transfused (blood type compatibility was still poorly understood). But what about a whole organ? How compatible are tissues from one creature placed in a different creature? Scientists observed what happened when the circulatory systems of two animals were connected to help understand tissue compatibility.

People took these scary new ideas (like transfusions, parabiosis, and electrophysiology) and made horror stories. If two animals can be sewn together, could we assemble a new creature from parts and infuse life with electricity? This became Frankenstein’s monster. If a transfusion saves life, is the blood transferring life? This became Dracula. Folklore often expresses our anxieties. In vampire lore, blood is life. Drink blood, absorb life. Tales of blood magic and ritual sacrifice must have felt relevant to people first witnessing blood transfusions.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula incorporated the scary science of his time: a blood transfusion saves a character’s life. The symbolism is quite explicit: “The blood is the life!” (Thank you, Mr. Renfield). Anxiety about newly emerging biological science had an expression in vampire lore. Dracula and vampirism are about lots of other things, too, like the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, xenophobia in Victorian Britain, fears of venereal disease, suspicion of wealthy aristocratic parasites, and their paradoxical charismatic attraction.

Enter the 21th century and parabiosis is helping scientists understand the biology of aging. Almost all animals age, grow old, and die. Despite this near universality, the aging process is not fully understood. What biochemistry drives it? Is aging the accumulation of bad garbage in the body, or a depletion of healthy biochemicals, or both? Is it caused by something internal to the cells, outside of cells, or both? Parabiosis is a way to help understand this problem.

Scientists connected the circulatory systems of a young mouse and an old mouse. It changed the aging process of both. The young mouse aged faster, and the old mouse was rejuvenated. That tells scientists that something in the blood – possibly something dissolved in the serum – is important to aging. Aging is not just cells wearing out. Aging must also relate to the environment around cells. This is a clue that will eventually help us fight aging and expand lifespan. There are already some dubious clinics offering ‘young blood’ transfusions on slim evidence (see FDA warning).

Parabiosis is not vampirism, but vampirism is still a potent way to express social anxieties. The vampire is an apt symbol for the dangers of life extension science. In 1897 and 2023, we have certain fears in common: rent-seeking parasites are draining the economic life from everyone else. Vampire lore captures the seductive quality of life-extending parasitic wealth. People hate and fear the vampire, but maybe they also would like to be the vampire.

Everyone wants to slow aging and live longer and healthier. It is scary, though, to consider the implications. How long will elderly leaders be able to hold onto power? Will young people be unable to compete for leadership positions in industry or government? Most of US federal office holders are old. It takes time to accumulate power and influence. The median age for a sitting Congressperson is in the 60s. What if congressmembers held their seats into their second century? Sitting centenarian senators serving for fifty years? One hundred years? It is not a good vision of the future. In the nineteenth century, too much power rested with the landed nobility. Our situation may not be so different. We must ensure that new ideas do not drown in a sea of old money. We should extend lifespan, but we should not allow the young and poor to be bled dry by the wealthy and immortal.

The comic and illustration were written and created by Peter Allen with MidJourney and shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Further reading:

Rich people buying young blood news articles

Young blood antiaging trial raises questions | Science | AAAS

FDA Issues Warning about Young-Blood Transfusions – Scientific American

Scientific articles:

Conese, Massimo, Annalucia Carbone, Elisa Beccia, and Antonella Angiolillo. “The Fountain of Youth: A Tale of Parabiosis, Stem Cells, and Rejuvenation.” Open Medicine 12 (October 28, 2017): 376–83.

Feng, Nan, Jianmin Luo, and Ximin Guo. “The Immune Influence of a Parabiosis Model on Tumour-Bearing Mice.” Swiss Medical Weekly, no. 39 (October 3, 2018).