Funny the mischief that can happen with a little blood and spit. Seemingly unrelated medical stories last week brought home the lesson of the law of unintended consequences. Those consequences abound everywhere, in health care most especially. So with blood, we’re learning about a bizarre new fountain-of-youth treatment, with echoes of vampires, for seniors who ought to know better. And with spit, we’re learning how seemingly harmless genetic tests can raise from the dead some disturbing revelations about our deceased family members.
Bunk about blood transfusions
The federal Food and Drug Administration has warned older Americans about a new kind of anti-aging bunk flying out of the Silicon Valley: blood transfusions. Companies, dancing on a fine legal line, have hinted that seniors could benefit by getting transfusions of young people’s blood and blood products.
There is no proven clinical benefit of the infusion of plasma from young donors in the prevention of conditions such as aging or memory loss, or for the treatment of such conditions as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The dosing of these infusions, which can involve large administered volumes, is also not guided by evidence from adequate and well controlled trials. In addition, the infusion of plasma can be associated with infectious, allergic, respiratory, and cardiovascular risks.
Isn’t this, um, common sense? Apparently not, as Bloomberg news service reported:
The idea of infusing young blood to fight aging has attracted technology entrepreneurs like billionaire Peter Thiel and was lampooned in a 2017 episode of the HBO show ‘Silicon Valley.’ Thiel’s reported interest was sparked by a company called Ambrosia, which has locations in five states across the U.S. and sells one liter of blood plasma from donors between the ages of 16 and 25 for $8,000, according to its website. Ambrosia’s website was updated … to say it has ‘ceased patient treatments’ in compliance with the FDA’s advisory.
Maybe when blood is manipulated in sports, they call it “doping” for a reason — it’s for dopes, right?
The FDA action on blood transfusions followed the agency’s crackdown on dietary supplement makers and their hyping of over the counter (OTC), poorly regulated pills purporting to “cure” or prevent diseases. They don’t. Not Alzheimer’s, not cancer, not diabetes, not any known disease. They don’t extend your lifespan either. Save your money, don’t buy them — unless your doctor can give you a detailed, medical reason why.
A tube of spit proves that a little knowledge can be dangerous
And, while you’re at it, consider pocketing the money that too many Americans are tossing at another health fad: OTC, mail-in, spit-in-a-tube tests that claim to provide genetic information. The data they produce for consumers is dubious in its health benefits, but very real in how it can tear apart families by exposing long-dead secrets.
These genetic tests can mislead patients about health risks, because we just don’t know enough yet about the true and complex links between our genetic makeup and our long-term risks of a host of diseases.
On the heredity front, these tests increasingly are causing disruptions in families, digging up disturbing and unhappy histories and secrets. Because genetic testing has become so trendy, untold numbers of Americans now have their most personal information splashed all over the internet, sometimes due to well-intended gift-giving or genealogical research.
It goes awry, however, pushing people who never intended it to do so, to be forced to reconsider their closest familial bonds (sisters who discover they’re not as tightly related as they believed), the lives of their parents or grandparents, and even the identities of their partners in bringing kids into the world. Who among us, in spending $79 for a snappy test kit, is ready to think through the ethnicity, nationality, and race of family members and ourselves?
It may sound intriguing or “fun” to try, but who is ready to see a family member potentially linked to a heinous crime via law enforcement sleuthing online using tactics and techniques with genetic tests that, for now, haven’t been tested or safeguarded by courts?
Unconvinced? Just consider that 23andMe, one of the most popular online vendor of OTC genetic test kits, may not be in the business that many Americans think: It is morphing — as expected — into a giant warehouse of crucial data on our collective and individual health. It is cutting deals left and right to monetize that information, especially with Big Pharma. It, in fact, may be on a path to become its own Big Pharma firm.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages inflicted on them by dangerous drugs produced and distributed by Big Pharma in cavalier fashion. Drug makers and their executives long have proven that their prime pursuit is making profits and enriching suits and share holders — not acting in the best interests of patients and the public.
It’s a naive leap of faith for buyers of OTC genetic kits to think that invaluable, highly personal information they share freely with a profit-driven company will be kept confidential and not used to the business’ benefit. All the assurances about data that is almost magically made anonymous, not linked to individuals or groups, may be good — for now. But are the purported guarantees proving to be worth much more than the warm saliva in thousands of sample tubes? Ask the increasing numbers of shattered families.