PALM BEACH, Fla. —For the crowd of mostly baby boomers,
who’d just finished their healthy lunch of salmon fillet on
a bed of grains and vegetables, the warning could not have
been more dire: You’re running out of time.
can’t sit still. We don’t have the time to do that,”
bellowed Bill Faloon, the 63-year-old former mortician
addressing them from the stage. To his left and right, giant
screens projecting government
actuarial tables reminded the group of the
“projected year of our termination.” Men of Faloon’s age
could expect to die in 2037. Any 83-year-old women in the
room? They’ve got until only 2026.
that initiative,” Faloon urged his audience of about 120
people who had flown in from as far as California, Scotland,
and Spain. How? Paying to participate in a soon-to-launch
clinical trial testing transfusions of young blood “offers
the greatest potential for everyone in this room to add a
lot of healthy years to their life,” Faloon said. “Not only
do you get to potentially live longer … but you’re going to
be healthier. And some of the chronic problems you have now
got an inside look at this $195-a-head
symposium, held last month in this wealthy beachside
enclave. It offered a striking view of how promoters
aggressively market scientifically dubious elixirs to aging
people desperate to defy their own mortality.
STAT’s request, eight independent experts reviewed informationalhandouts about
the clinical trial, and all sharply criticized the study’s
marketing, design, and scientific rationale.
just reeks of snake oil,” said Michael Conboy, a cell and
molecular biologist at the University of California,
Berkeley, who’s collaborated on studies sewing old and young
mice together and transfusing blood between them. “There’s
no evidence in my mind that it’s going to work.”
the questionable science, participants have to pay big money
to join the trial. Faloon, an evangelist of anti-aging
research who cut a slim figure in his black suit and had the
thick dark hair of a younger man, acknowledged during his
talk that it would be “expensive” to sign up for the trial.
considering enrolling said they had been told they would
have to pay $285,000. But the Florida physician running the
trial, Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj, said the final price tag is
still being discussed in consultation with the Food and Drug
Administration and is likely to change.
long been a thriving market of supplements, creams, and
pills that promise to forestall aging.
lately, big players and investors have also spotted an
opportunity: Google’s parent company has invested heavily in
its secretive anti-aging spinout, called Calico. A startup
called Celularity last month raised
$250 million to try to use postpartum placentas
to delay the aging process. And a company called Elysium
Health has rallied Nobel Prize winners to sell a
$50-per-month supplement aimed at boosting levels of a
molecule known as NAD+ that’s hypothesized to play a role in
promoting longevity, though not without prompting
rebuke from some prominent doctors.
technologies and a receptive audience are expanding that
economy, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs to
pitch everyone from Silicon Valley titans to middle-America
retirees on unproven and costly services like banking stem
cells and injecting hormones.
services are often promoted at events that University of
California, Davis, stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler calls
“infomercial seminars.” In January, for example, a company
called Celltex Therapeutics pitched
its stem cell treatments to would-be patients
over wine and shrimp at a Houston hotel.
there’s the West Palm Beach symposium, held to recruit
participants for a study testing what happens when aging
people get infusions of plasma (the fluid part of blood
packed with signaling proteins and other molecules but no
red or white cells) from young people who’ve taken a drug
meant to activate their immune system. Maharaj, a
Scottish-trained hematologist and oncologist with a flair
for salesmanship, plans to run the 30-patient trial at
practice he owns in Boynton Beach, Fla.
study, which he describes as a Phase 1/Phase 2 trial, is a
first-in-human test, which means that it is designed to
evaluate only whether the experimental therapy is safe. But
in his remarks at the symposium, Maharaj didn’t hesitate to
make bold promises about what the treatment could do to
ameliorate the frailty that results from getting older.
saying that we will defy aging,” Maharaj told the crowd at
one point. “We believe that this could benefit everyone who
is here,” he declared at another moment.
experts consulted by STAT were dubious. Among their top
concerns: Mixed but intriguing evidence in mice doesn’t yet
justify testing this idea in humans, much less charging them
a huge sum to sign up. And the study uses neither blinding
nor a placebo group, design elements considered essential
for rigorous medical research.
is no way under heaven that they will be able to
convincingly show whether this works or this doesn’t work.
It’s a trial that is designed and destined to provide no
valuable information,” said Dr. Steven Joffe, a pediatric
oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania
who performs bone marrow transplants. He called the
scientific hypothesis “incredibly far-fetched.”
about the critiques, Maharaj declined to comment, saying he
had been advised to wait until he releases more information
about the trial. He suggested that publicity is already
impeding his ability to move forward with the study.
THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
“young blood project” symposium was gussied up as one of the
dozens of galas that fill the winter social calendar here,
with the pitch for Maharaj’s clinical trial artfully slipped
in before the dessert of fruit and custard tart.
was held on a Friday in February, at a glitzy performing
arts center overlooking a Hilton hotel and a Ruth’s Chris
Steak House. Five fountains spurted from a reflecting pool
outside flanked by palm trees.
about a 15-minute drive north of President Trump’s
Mar-a-Lago club and some 250 miles south of the site of the
conquistador Ponce de León’s mythical search for the
fountain of youth, now converted into a tourist attraction
and a wedding venue.
one day we’ll be able to announce that Florida is truly the
fountain of youth,” Maharaj told the crowd inside while he
talked up his clinical trial.
—charismatic and impossible to miss with his tan suit, pink
tie, and Scottish accent —was the star of the show. He
darted from table to table, talking to so many attendees
that he didn’t have time for lunch. And he left an
impression: Without exception, attendees spoke glowingly
about Maharaj in interviews with STAT.
made his name in Florida performing bone marrow transplants
for cancer patients and, increasingly, offering
nontraditional services to a wealthy clientele. His
clinic treats patients with blood cancers and other blood
disorders while also offering nontraditional services like
stem cell banking for babies and adults, an increasingly
popular procedure promising future dividends that are unproven
and uncertain. (And Maharaj practices what he
preaches: He said he’s had his own stem cells collected and
has become a frequent speaker on the Palm Beach social
circuit. Photos show him posing
at Mar-a-Lago and shaking
hands with the celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz.
He was featured on the cover of Palm Beach Society magazine
promoting the symposium.
attendees —dressed up in slacks, ties, and elegant pantsuits
—were served food and drink throughout the day, beginning
with made-to-order smoothies for breakfast and glasses of
wine to cap off the afternoon. A rotating cast of a
violinist, a harpist, and a pianist provided musical
interludes between talks. Fresh white, pink, and green
flowers decorated high tables, but if you looked closely,
some of them were beginning to wilt.
interviews with STAT, the attendees complained about
ailments that hadn’t bothered them when they were younger:
Back problems. Bad hips. The aftermath of a stroke.
Parkinson’s disease. Arthritis.
of them voiced frustration with the medical establishment
and pharmaceutical companies, which they said pay too little
attention to fixing the root cause of disease. Others voiced
fears of spending their final days hooked up to machines in
a hospital bed.
about their plans for enrolling in the trial, surprisingly
few among the well-heeled crowd said the cost was too high.
But if the experience of Darryl Thompson, 73, and his wife
Sherry Thompson, 71, is any indicator, it may prove hard for
Maharaj to convince many of them to enroll.
Thompsons, who have three grown children and are both
retired after careers in government, flew out to Florida
from their home in Fort Worth, Texas, for the symposium.
They were there because Darryl Thompson had made aging
reversal research something of a pet project. He’d started
taking many daily supplements and learning as much as he
could after a series of health scares (high blood pressure,
high uric acid, and an enlarged prostate for Darryl
Thompson, and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure for
Thompson’s motivation for attending was simpler: “Quite
frankly, I went because Darryl twisted my arm to go,” she
said with a laugh.
the end of the program, Darryl Thompson was eager to enroll
in the trial, but he knew he didn’t want to do it without
his wife. And Sherry Thompson remained hesitant. She was
worried about the money, and the time they’d have to spend
flying back and forth from Texas to Florida once a month for
a year. And she was nagged, too, by a sense that perhaps
there’s a natural order to things. That perhaps we aren’t
supposed to live longer than we already do.
the end, Darryl Thompson couldn’t convince her. But he plans
to keep a close eye on the trial. “I’m hoping that they’ll
get the cost down and refine their techniques,” he said.
“Possibly my wife and I could be a candidate for the next
PROMISING THERAPIES —OR FALSE HOPES
like Maharaj’s operate on the fringes of science, yet they
have captured the public imagination. Young blood has
become so alluring as a possible way to extend life that it
inspired an episode last
year on the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” in which an aging
tech mogul relies on blood infusions from a handsome young
man known as “an infusion associate.” Even the
billionaire investor Peter Thiel is rumored to
be personally interested in the experimental treatment.
trial wouldn’t be the first to transfuse plasma from young
donors into older people. A biotech startup called Alkahest,
spun out from a Stanford lab, reported
results in November from a placebo-controlled
safety trial testing the effect of plasma from young donors
on 18 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. The
patients who got the plasma didn’t suffer serious side
effects, but the group didn’t see a statistically
significant improvement in their scores on a widely used
a company called Ambrosia recently completed a clinical
trial that charged about 80 people over the age
of 35 a sum of $8,000 to get an infusion of plasma from a
donor between the ages of 16 and 25. Ambrosia plans later
this year to try to publish those results in a peer-reviewed
journal, said Dr. Jesse Karmazin, the company’s founder.
and the experts consulted by STAT said that, to their
knowledge, Maharaj’s trial will be the first to try a new
twist on young blood infusions: injecting the young donors
with a drug called granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, or
body makes this glycoprotein naturally, but a form of it
sold as Neupogen by Amgen is approved for cancer patients
recovering from chemotherapy and for healthy people
preparing to donate stem cells. It’s used this way because
it stimulates the bone marrow to produce white blood cells
and certain stem cells and release them into the
bloodstream. Maharaj said he chose to use G-CSF because he
thinks it’s the best way to mobilize the proteins and other
factors into young plasma that he thinks could have a
restorative effect on the older participants. (Maharaj holds
several patents associated with the therapeutic
use of G-CSF.)
run his study, Maharaj plans to recruit donors between the
ages of 18 and 35 and inject them with G-CSF and collect
their plasma. In return, they’ll be paid up to $750.
plasma will be infused once a month for 12 months into the
veins of the older clinical trial participants. Maharaj will
enroll people who are between the ages of 55 and 95 and who
demonstrate several indicators of frailty such as exhaustion
and weight loss.
evaluate whether the experimental treatment is safe and
whether it might be able to reduce frailty, Maharaj plans to
run a battery of baseline testing on each clinical trial
participant before they get their first infusion of young
plasma and then monitor their changes for two years: That
means cognitive exams, questionnaires about their quality of
life and their indicators of frailty, and tests to measure
biomarkers he believes are linked with aging, such as
telomere lengths and DNA methylation.
said he didn’t use a placebo group in his study because it
was too expensive and because he believes that the baseline
assessment will allow participants to serve as their own
control. He said that if his trial shows promising results,
he’ll run a second randomized trial using a placebo.
has not published any animal studies testing the procedure
he’s proposing to try in humans. He did, however, publish
a paper last year documenting a study in which he
infused three cancer patients with white blood cells from
young donors who had been injected with G-CSF. The trial was
originally intended to enroll 29 patients, but Maharaj did
not answer questions about why the paper featured results
from only three of them.
by STAT for citations in the published literature that
provide the scientific basis for his new trial, Maharaj
pointed to six studies. One was conducted on human cells in
lab dishes. The other five were conducted in mice; they
found that, after being exposed to the blood of young mice,
old mice had less abnormal thickening of their heart, grew
more nervous tissue, and saw improved cognitive function,
among other changes.
the Harvard stem cell and regenerative biologist Amy Wagers,
a co-author on three of the mouse papers, said in an email
to STAT that she does not agree that her teams’ studies
provide a scientific basis for Maharaj’s clinical trial.
problems are many: Young blood didn’t do much for old mice
studies. Promising findings in mice are rarely
replicated in humans. And the trouble with extrapolating so
much from mouse studies is that “nobody has actually shown
over the long term how long these quote un-quote
improvements persist, and we don’t know whether it’s broadly
improving aspects of aging or it’s specific to certain
tissues,” said Matt Kaeberlein, a biologist who studies
aging in dogs and other animal models at the University of
trials that charge enrollees to participate are ostensibly
aimed at giving patients early access to promising therapies
—often in the fields of stem cells or aging reversal —that
are too unusual or have too little profit potential to get
funding from traditional sources such as companies,
foundations, or the National Institutes of Health. But
critics worry that such trials too often exploit desperate
patients, offering them false hope of restored health while
doing little or nothing to advance scientific research.
said he spent three years seeking funding for his trial from
foundations but couldn’t close a deal. He said he thinks he
was turned down because his focus on attacking aging-related
frailty was too novel and unfamiliar to would-be funders.
of mid-February, no patients had officially enrolled in
Maharaj’s study, though about 10 had demonstrated interest
by calling and leaving their information with his private
practice, Maharaj said. (He declined STAT’s request to
interview these people and would not provide an update on
how many patients had enrolled by the end of February.)
the symposium, Maharaj said that he had received the
go-ahead to proceed with the study from the FDA and the
Western Institutional Review Board, but did not provide the
documents STAT requested to verify those claims.
Smith Dyer, an FDA spokeswoman, declined to comment on
Maharaj’s trial. In cases in which a clinical trial that’s
regulated by the agency proposes to charge patients to
receive an experimental drug or certain biological products,
the sponsor must obtain written authorization from the FDA,
Smith Dyer said.
study is not listed on the government database of human
studies known as clinicaltrials.gov, though he said it will
be registered on the site in the next few days.
has no formal stake or involvement in the young-blood
clinical trial, but he’s promoted it heavily. In recent
emails to the roughly 2,000 members of the society and a
posting on the group’s website, Faloon wrote that enrolling
in the study would cost $285,000 —in an effort, he said, to
be transparent to people who couldn’t afford it.
publicity seems to have backfired, however. Faloon’s
communication contained “information on pricing which the
IRB had not yet seen,” Maharaj said. “As a result, the IRB
has inquired as to the genesis of that press release, and it
has negatively impacted on my ability to proceed with this
study until the IRB is satisfied that it is receiving all
information relevant to the study.” (Faloon’s team has since
removed the pricing information from the society’s website,
in the hope that Maharaj’s study can proceed as planned.)
long bristled at what he sees as excessive regulation
holding back life-saving and -extending therapies. He has
tussled in particular with the FDA, which in 1987 raided his
supplement company’s warehouse, leading to an indictment for
allegedly conspiring to import unapproved drugs into the
country; the indictment was eventually dropped. Over the
years, he’s opened what he’s called an “FDA
Holocaust Museum,” which compared the number of
needless deaths he believes the agency has caused to
those caused by the Nazis, and a “Church
of Perpetual Life” to proselytize his gospel of
everlasting life on earth.
doesn’t hesitate when asked whether he wants to live forever
—the answer is yes —but he’s hedging his bets. He’s also a
cryonics enthusiast, he said, “because in the event I die
before immortality is achieved, cryopreservation offers me
the opportunity to be transported into the future where
revival may be possible.”
flying, Faloon used to lug a thermally insulated helmet in
his carry-on bag that he’d put on during takeoffs and
landings. The idea was that, in the event the plane crashed
and burned, his head could still be salvaged and frozen. But
he no longer takes his helmet on flights, he said, in part
because he’s not sure it will actually work.
other reason? It’s too much trouble, he said, to get his
helmet through airport security.