Why the wealthy believe the fountain of youth flows with blood, and are spending thousands to satiate their lust

The Guinness World Records list Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed as the most prolific female murderer in history. Often compared to Vlad the Impaler (the basis for the fictional Count Dracula), the “Blood Countess” was an infamous 16th century serial killer rumoured to have murdered approximately 650 young girls to both drink and bathe in their blood.

Apologies for such a macabre introduction, but the real life blood lust of royals and aristocrats has often served as inspiration for some of our most frightening horror stories. 

That’s why you might be a little apprehensive to learn about the latest blood thirst among the one per cent. Recently, the upper classes have become increasingly obsessed with using actual blood to keep themselves young, beautiful and vital. It sounds a bit like something from last season’s American Horror Story, but the rise of blood as the 21st century Holy Grail is very real and rooted in the latest advances in modern science.

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Fortunately, no one has been murdered by a deranged member of the aristocracy in this century’s pursuit of youth and immortality. In fact, much of the emphasis has been on using one’s own blood as a magical elixir that encourages the body to regenerate.

You may remember 2013’s viral photo of Kim Kardashian, face smeared in blood, mugging for a selfie after receiving a “Vampire Facial.” The anti-aging treatment, where a patient’s own blood is withdrawn, spun in a centrifuge to create platelet-rich plasma, then re-injected back into their own skin, became immediately covetable. It also came with a price tag of about $1,500.

“The Kim Kardashian photo triggered demand, but it was definitely sensationalized in the media. They showed it as actual red blood being used on her skin, which isn’t actually how the treatment looks,” says Dr. Diane Wong, owner of Glow Medi Spa. In reality, the plasma is more clear with a tinge of yellow (markedly less creepy, but also less photogenic).

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The Vampire Facial, also known as PRP (platelet-rich plasma) by those more interested in medicine than tabloids, has come a long way since those early Kardashian-fuelled days. The centrifuged blood is now less commonly re-injected into skin. Rather, practitioners have found equal success by applying it topically after treatments that penetrate the skin’s dermal layer.

“We do things differently now. Although we got results with injectables, it was limited because the needles would create a lot of downtime and pain. Clients weren’t as willing to do it,” says Wong. “Now the only people who are hesitant are those who are squeamish about needles or getting their blood taken.”

Wong applies PRP after a treatment called VoluDerm, which uses radiofrequency microneedling to create small wounds in the skin’s surface. The plasma encourages the body to regenerate and produce more collagen after the procedure, which is now one of Glow Medi Spa’s most popular services and boasts zero downtime.

Outside of the beauty world, athletes are also using their own blood to recover from injuries and increase performance. Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Rafael Nadal all made headlines for using injectable blood therapy. “It works the same way as when you cut yourself. One of the first cells that shows up to kickstart healing is the platelet that tells your body to start making more tissue or collagen,” says Dr. Julia Carroll, co-owner of Compass Dermatology. “The most common reaction we get from patients isn’t ‘ew, gross,’ it’s ‘wow that’s really cool.’”

If you want to take things a step further, you can visit one of several trendy blood spas. The most notable one is Espace Chenot at L’Albereta in Italy, where doctors extract 100 millilitres of your blood, mix it with oxygen, then inject it back into you to encourage cell regeneration. The treatment is supposed to aid with memory, weight loss, energy and immunity. This process would be repeated multiple times over a patient’s stay.

Things get a bit more eerie from there, though. There’s a class of scientists and the extremely wealthy who are beginning to experiment with not just their own blood, but the blood of young people. This is called parabiosis.

In 2014, researchers began injecting elderly mice with the blood of younger mice and discovered that it seemed to improve the older rodents’ memory and ability to learn. This summer, a startup company called Ambrosia launched the first U.S. clinical trial to test the anti-aging benefits of young human blood. Notably, it’s a pay-to-play trial, which has raised ethical concerns. Ambrosia plans to charge interested participants a whopping $8,000 U.S. for lab tests and a one-time treatment. In South Korea, scientists are studying whether human umbilical cord blood can prevent frailty in the elderly.

Then there’s the bloodlust of one Peter Thiel – and not just when it comes to bankrupting Gawker. The Silicon Valley billionaire has made no secret in his belief that young people’s blood is the key to extending human life and perhaps even warding off death entirely. He’s particularly interested in the process of getting blood transfusions from young people.

Thiel has publicly invested in several biotech startups and donated $6 million to biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey’s Sens Foundation, which seeks to extend human lifespans. While he hasn’t publicly admitted to injecting himself with young blood, Gawker reported in June that Thiel “spends $40,000 per quarter to get an infusion of blood from an 18-year-old based on research conducted at Stanford on extending the lives of mice.” Vanity Fair also recently reported rumours of wealthy Silicon Valley elites paying young people for their blood.

Is there anything blood can’t do? According to Wong, the possibilities seem pretty endless at the moment, at least in the beauty sector. “Some trends come and go, but this is something that is going to be able to advance a lot and isn’t going away anytime soon,” she says. As an example of where blood-based treatments are headed next, she points to a new study she’s taking part in that looks at using PRP to stimulate hair regeneration.

Even with all these advances, the average person won’t be bathing in blood any time soon. The cost of even the cheapest of these treatments remains prohibitive for most people. “The cost is a very limiting factor, both for us and the patients,” says Wong. For now, unless you’re of a certain class, you may just have to be satisfied with your favourite face cream.

Blood may be thicker than water, but cold hard cash trumps all.

This piece first appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux