The Various Fountains of Youth

Queen to Bishop 4, you little whippersnapper.
Ponce de Leon wandered through Florida looking for the legendary Fountain of Youth. He found gators and mosquitoes and not much else. Keep in mind that this was long before Disney World and local residents had spoiled the state beyond repair. According to de Leon’s journals it was all quite beautiful, as long as you didn’t get eaten by the local fauna. But the main reason for de Leon’s epic search was to find a way to ensure that he, and his followers, would remain forever young. Oh, allegedly, he would share the discovery with the world, but, you know, paperwork and stuff first and …. face it, if he’d found it no one would have ever known. They would have just vanished from the world. One more little mystery to keep conspiracy buffs happy. But, he didn’t so they aren’t.

So, denied the mystical solution to immortality man has trundled blindly forward using a silly thing called science to seek this grail, holy or otherwise I leave to you. Research involving the telomerase enzyme has shown tantalizing results. Mice deprived of it age radically. Once it’s returned they become young again.

But some discoveries are made not by doing years of research but by looking up and saying “What the heck is that?” That would be the case here. A child named Brooke Greenberg is 17 years old. She stopped aging when she was about 1.

Scientists are hoping to gain new insights into the mysteries of ageing by sequencing the genome of a 17-year-old girl who has the body and behaviour of a tiny toddler.

Brooke Greenberg is old enough to drive a car and next year will be old enough to vote — but at 16lb in weight and just 30in tall, she is still the size of a one-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 ageing and even suggest new therapies for diseases linked to old age.

“We think that Brooke’s condition presents us with a unique opportunity to understand the process of ageing,” 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 ageing 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.”

Such research will be the focus of a conference at the Royal Society in London this week to be attended by some of the world’s leading age researchers.

It follows a series of scientific breakthroughs showing that the life span of many animals can be dramatically extended by making minute changes in single genes.

The work began with tiny worms known as C elegans, which normally live for only about a fortnight. Researchers have been able to extend their life span by up to 10 weeks by making small changes in certain genes.

Scientists have gone on to discover that mutating the same genes in mice had the same effect.

“Mice are genetically very close to humans,” said Cynthia Kenyon, professor of biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, who is a key speaker at the Royal Society.

“The implication is that ageing is controlled by a relatively small number of genes and that we might be able to target these with new therapies that would improve the quality and length of human life.”

The laboratory findings have been supported by research into humans, focusing on families whose members are long-lived. In one recent study Eline Slagboom, professor of molecular epidemiology at Leiden University, Holland, collected data on 30,500 people in 500 long-lived families to find the metabolic and genetic factors that make them special.

“Such people simply age slower than the rest of us,” she said. “Their skin is better, they have less risk of diseases of old age like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension and their ability to metabolise lipids and other nutrients is better. The question is: what is controlling all these different manifestations of slow ageing?

“So far, the evidence suggests that there could be just a few key genes in charge of it all. If we can find out where they are and how they work, it opens the way to new therapies against the diseases of ageing that could work in all of us.”

Walker and other researchers, including Kenyon, believe that finding the cause of Brooke Greenberg’s condition could be one way to pinpoint some of those genes.

Superficially, Brooke, who lives with her parents Howard and Melanie Greenberg and her three sisters in Reisterstown, a Baltimore suburb, is frozen in time. She looks and acts as if she were a small toddler — for 17 years her family has changed her nappies, rocked her to sleep and given her cuddles.

Brooke has shown some development, including crawling, smiling and giggling when tickled but she has never learnt to speak and still has her infant teeth.

But 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.

He said: “Brooke is just a wonderful child. 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 co-ordinate 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 ageing process at will.

“Just possibly it could give us an opportunity to answer the question of why we are mortal.”

See, the staying young part is pretty cool. The eternal mind of a toddler, not so much.

Now, that last part, “Why are we mortal?” isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. Once we attain adulthood there’s no reason for our bodies to decay. Scientists knows the many hows behind aging, but the underlying why seems to elude them.

Of course, if you could live a long, healthy life, what would you do for your 94th birthday? If you’re Ramajit Raghav you become a dad for the very first time.

The wait to hold his own child is finally over for Ramajit Raghav, who became father to a son for the first time at the advanced age of 94.

Ramajit hails from a small village in India and has been working at his landlord’s farm for the last 22 years. He got married to Shakuntala, his second wife ten years ago who is believed to be in her 50s presently.

Shakuntala was admitted to the Kharkoda town Government civil Hospital last month where she delivered normally a baby boy.

The proud parents have named their baby Karamjit and his father insists that he is ‘God’s gift’ to him. He also adds that his age is only a number and he has a clear, clutter-free mind.

When asked whether he was worried about his child’s future, the new dad insisted he is in good health and that he would still be around in a decade.

‘Nothing will happen to my child as I will die only if a black snake bites me and that is very far,’ he said.

‘Visit me after 10 years and you will find me in the same appearance.’

Dr. Mahendra Kumar the senior medical officer of the hospital confirmed the birth of the child and said that though it was a remote possibility to have a child at this age; it could not be completely ruled out.

‘Having babies at such age is remote possibility but then it can’t be ruled out as it just needs one sperm to fertilise the egg.’

With this birth, Ramajit has beaten the previous holder of the oldest dad crown in India, a 90 year old Nanu Ram Jogi, who became a dad to his 22nd child in 2007

Which reminds me of this classic.

An 80 year old man was having his annual checkup and the doctor asked him how he was feeling. “I’ve never been better!” he boasted. “I’ve got an eighteen year old bride who’s pregnant and having my child! What do you think about that?”

The doctor considered this for a moment, then said, “Let me tell you a story. I knew a guy who was an avid hunter. He never missed a season. But one day he went out in a bit of a hurry and he accidentally grabbed his umbrella instead of his gun.”

The doctor continued, “So he was in the woods and suddenly a grizzly bear appeared in front of him! He raised up his umbrella, pointed it at the bear and squeezed the handle.”

“And do you know what happened?” the doctor queried.

Dumbfounded, the old man replied “No”.

The doctor continued, “The bear dropped dead in front of him!”

“That’s impossible!” exclaimed the old man. “Someone else must have shot that bear.”

“That’s kind of what I’m getting at…” replied the doctor.

Still, it was a nice story.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18phEYcqWI0&w=500&h=319]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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