Real-life Peter Pan DNA holds clue to immortality

SYNDROME X: Brooke Greenberg, who died of a lung illness aged 20 on Oct 24, was trapped in the body of a two-year-old all her life.


    Nov 11, 2013

    Real-life Peter Pan DNA holds clue to immortality


    BROOKE Greenberg, the little girl who never grew up, died on Oct 24 aged 20.

    But her extraordinary life, in which she was trapped in the body of a two-year-old girl, could provide clues to unlocking the secrets of ageing and mortality.

    Much of Brooke's short life was spent being studied by scientists striving to understand her condition. It is known only as Syndrome X - and no one knows what causes it.

    "We are going to remember her every day. She was a very, very, very special child," said her father, Mr Howard Greenberg.

    Brooke, who lived in Maryland with her parents and three sisters, looked and acted like a toddler her whole life. She had the mental capacity of a one-year-old and weighed 7kg.

    Only her hair and nails grew, according to an ABC report that covered the family's story in 2009.

    In her early years, she underwent a series of medical emergencies, including stomach ulcers and an apparent stroke.

    When she was five, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and went into a coma. Her family began preparing for her funeral, but she woke up 14 days later and doctors could no longer find the tumour.

    Called the real-life "Peter Pan", Brooke died of a lung illness last month. Science is already working to make sure that she will not be forgotten.

    Dr Eric Schadt, the director of the Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has been entrusted by Brooke's family with their daughter's DNA and blood samples to create stem cells with which he can investigate the genetic basis of her condition.

    "Understanding the causes of Brooke's condition could provide insights into key development and ageing processes, which could lead to novel ways to increase longevity, and reduce age-related disorders," he said.

    He has already sequenced Brooke's genome, and that of her parents and three siblings - all of whom grew up normally. The hope is that clear links may be drawn between the mutations identified and Brooke's agelessness.

    "Most intrinsic diseases are related to age," he said. "If you can slow that process in people with genetic markers for, say, breast cancer, then we might be able to give them a better quality of life before the onset of the expression of those negative genes or until a cure for the disease is found."

    The next step, upon discovering a possible genetic basis for Brooke's condition, would be to create the same genetic conditions in short-lived lab animals, like mice. Dr Richard Walker, who was one of Brooke's physicians, said: "If - at five years - they're still young, it's a home run.

    "In my mind, biological immortality is possible, but improbable. It's not so much that we wouldn't want to do it, but think about the ethical, philosophical and religious issues that would come to the fore before we can get the funding."