Scientists are hoping to gain new insights into the mysteries of aging by sequencing the genome of a 17-year-old girl who has the body and behavior of a toddler.
Brooke Greenberg is old enough to drive a car and next year will be old enough to vote — but at 16 pounds and just 2-and-a-half feet tall, she is still the size of a 1-year-old.
Until recently she had been regarded as a medical oddity but a preliminary study of her DNA has suggested her failure to grow could be linked to defects in the genes that make the rest of humanity grow old.
If confirmed, the research could give scientists a fresh understanding of aging and even suggest new therapies for diseases linked to old age.
“Brooke’s condition presents us with a unique opportunity to understand the process of aging,” said Richard Walker, a professor at the University of South Florida School of Medicine, who is leading the research team.
“We think that she has a mutation in the genes that control her aging and development so that she appears to have been frozen in time. If we can compare her genome to the normal version then we might be able to find those genes and see exactly what they do and how to control them.”
Brooke, who lives with her parents and three sisters in a suburb of Baltimore, Md., has shown some development, including crawling, smiling and giggling when tickled but she has never learnt to speak and still has her infant teeth.
She has also suffered a succession of life-threatening health problems, including strokes, seizures, ulcers and breathing difficulties — almost as if she were growing old despite not growing up.
Howard Greenberg, Brooke's father, said he wanted the genome research carried out in the hope it might help others.
"Brooke is just a wonderful child.” he said. “She is very pure. She still babbles just like a 6-month-old baby but she still communicates and we always know just what she means."
Walker and his colleagues, who are working with Brooke’s parents to ensure she benefits from any research findings, have just published a research paper which suggests that in reality some parts of her body have indeed aged — but slowly and all at different rates.
“Our hypothesis is that she is suffering from damage in the gene or genes that coordinate the way the body develops and ages,” he said. “If we can use her DNA to find that mutant gene then we can test it in laboratory animals to see if we can switch if off and slow down the aging process at will. Just possibly it could give us an opportunity to answer the question of why we are mortal.”