Brooke the Immortal: An American Child May Hold Secrets to Aging
Part 2: The Disassociated Body
Richard Walker, a retired professor of medicine and specialist in the biology of aging, lives in a house on a lagoon in the coastal town of Indian Rocks, Florida. He became aware of Brooke Greenberg in 2005. "I thought right away that she had a unique mutation in key genes that control development and aging," he says. Walker contacted the Greenbergs and convinced the father to let him take a sample of Brooke's blood so that he could study her genetic makeup. He examined the number and condition of the chromosomes. He analyzed the so-called telomeres at the ends of chromosomes, the length of which provides information about the age of cells. He filled tiny reagent reservoirs made of biochips with pieces of genetic material, and tested the activity of a wide range of genes.
The results are as sobering as they are fascinating. "We haven't found anything unusual so far," says Walker, "but that wasn't a disappointment; it was actually an incentive to keep on searching."
The girl's uniqueness lies precisely in the fact that her genetic material seems normal, whereas she is obviously not normal, says the professor. Despite the surprisingly unremarkable genetic analysis, complete chaos prevails inside the girl's body.
Her brain is hardly more developed than an infant's, but her bones have a biological age of about 10 years. Her teeth, including her baby teeth, are like those of an eight-year-old. The length of the telomeres, on the other hand, corresponds to her actual age. In addition, the development of various organ systems, like the digestive tract, is what the professor calls "disassociated."
"Different parts of her body are developing at different rates, as if they were not a unit but parts of separate organisms," Walker explains. He believes that there is only one explanation -- a failure of central control genes.
Normally, a carefully orchestrated genetic program allows a tiny egg cell to grow into an adult body. But if this master plan is impaired, the marvel of growth goes awry. Walker believes that this is precisely what has happened with Brooke. Genes that play an important role in physical development are either inactive or defective. "If we identify those genes, we might be able to understand the development and subsequently the aging of the body," says the scientist.
An Eccentric Theory
Walker believes that aging is merely the continuation of the body's development. He uses the image of a house to illustrate his point. First the house is built. When it's finished -- or, in the case of the body, when sexual maturity is reached -- the construction crew would normally leave the site. But in normal people the construction workers stay and keep building, according to a plan that's been fulfilled and a construction supervisor who says nothing but nonsense. Soon the crew builds things like contorted bay windows and shaky dormers. Supporting beams are suddenly sawed off, and then walls start falling. Finally the building collapses completely -- and death catches up with the body.
"Aging happens when developmental genes merely run out of meaningful information and subsequently cause chaos," Walker says. His idea is to simply shut off the master genes of development. This, he hopes, will put a stop to the aging process. If Walker is right, the consequences will be dramatic. A body manipulated in this fashion would no longer change, but would only perform repair work. Eternal life would be within reach.
All this talk has exhausted the professor. He sits in his heavy armchair and gazes out at the glittering water. A dinghy and a motorboat are tied to his private jetty directly in front of the deck, and a surfboard is lying nearby. The doctor sails, surfs and skis. He is 71. He loves his life.
Does he want to be immortal?
"Of course I want to live forever," he says. "I could study mathematics; I could learn so many more things. It would be the greatest gift in the world." Many people, says Walker, imagine that eternal life would be nothing but hardship and senescence. "But that's not how it would be," says Walker. Ideally development would be arrested just after a person reaches sexual maturity.
And the social consequences? Who would be allowed to live forever, and who wouldn't? Who would be allowed to have children?
Walker hesitates. "These are ethical questions, not scientific questions," he says. "These would be arguments made by philosophers and priests."
Walker's theories are controversial. The British biologist Aubrey de Grey, for example, holds his American colleague in high esteem, but believes that aging and development are not related. The Brooke Greenberg case, says de Grey, has "absolutely nothing to do with aging." He points to the phase of life between the ages of 20 and 40, in which the body hardly changes at all. "Is it likely that the developmental gene expression suddenly stops during this time and then starts up again? No, this is highly unlikely," he says.
De Grey favors the standard theory that the body's cells simply wear out over the years, and that they accumulate toxins and lose their ability to regenerate. He has identified seven causes of death, like cell loss or changes in genetic material, which he hopes to combat with stem-cell therapy or special injections.
But Walker doesn't challenge the criticism. "The deterioration of the body's cells is precisely a consequence of the unregulated activity of development genes," he argues. His theory is seductive in a sense. While biologists like de Grey tamper with the countless symptoms of growing old, Walker simply wants to do away with aging altogether.
"Imagine we could stop the degenerative changes of the body," he says enthusiastically. "The onset of age-related diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, dementia and many forms of cancer could be prevented."
To prove his theory, Walker needs people like Brooke Greenberg, in whom the developmental master genes fail. He's already discovered two similar cases. Six-year-old Gabrielle K., from Billings, Montana, born Oct. 15, 2004, also doesn't seem to be aging much at all. At the same time her chromosomes, just like Brooke Greenberg's, seem completely normal.
Nicky Freeman, a 40-year-man who seems to be trapped in a boy's body, lives in Esperance in Western Australia. His biological age is estimated at 10 years.
All in the Genes
Can Gabrielle or Nicky point the way to the fountain of youth? Walker doesn't know yet. He is focusing his attention on Brooke at the moment. He wants to sequence the girl's entire DNA, together with experts from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. If they find mutations in Brooke's genetic makeup, Walker plans to identify the corresponding genes in laboratory rats and then block them. He reasons that if the genetically manipulated remain young, researchers will in fact have put a stop to their development.
"Brooke holds the key to everything," says Walker. He's anxious to press on with his work, because he feels that his time is running out. But Howard Greenberg is stalling. He has long felt that he is protecting a valuable treasure in his red brick house. He's even hired lawyers to examine the issue of the rights to Brooke's genome. The father knows time is on his side. Doctors tell him that with good medical care his daughter can live a long time.
Howard Greenberg looks down at his daughter. Wearing a red-and-white striped T-shirt and white pants, the girl rocks back and forth in his baby swing, as monotonously as a pendulum.
"I always thought she would die way before me, but I don't think that anymore," says the 53-year-old after a pause. "Brooke can live forever. She'll always be here."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: An American Child May Hold Secrets to Aging
- Part 2: The Disassociated Body
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