Scientists wonder if Brooke Greenberg, now 16, will help point the way to new discoveries about the genetics of aging. Pictured from left to right on Brooke’s 12th birthday are sister Caitlin, 15; Brooke; sister Emily, 18; mom Melanie Greenberg; and sister Carly, 9.
Brooke Greenberg does not age normally and is immune to growth hormone. ABC’s 20-20 news show will feature her Friday, June 26, 2009. Brooke’s story is also to be shown in a documentary, “Child Frozen In Time,” Sunday, Aug. 2 at 10 p.m. on TLC.
Brooke hasn’t aged in the conventional sense. Dr. Richard Walker of the University of South Florida College of Medicine, in Tampa, says Brooke’s body is not developing as a coordinated unit, but as independent parts that are out of sync. She has never been diagnosed with any known genetic syndrome or chromosomal abnormality that would help explain why.
In a recent paper for the journal “Mechanisms of Ageing and Development,” Walker and his co-authors, who include Pakula and All Children’s Hospital (St. Petersburg, Fla.) geneticist Maxine Sutcliffe chronicled a baffling range of inconsistencies in Brooke’s aging process. She still has baby teeth at 16, for instance. And her bone age is estimated to be more like 10 years old.
“There’ve been very minimal changes in Brooke’s brain,” Walker said. “Various parts of her body, rather than all being at the same stage, seem to be disconnected.”
In her first six years, Brooke went through a series of medical emergencies from which she recovered, often without explanation. She survived surgery for seven perforated stomach ulcers. She suffered a brain seizure followed by what was diagnosed as a stroke that weeks later left no apparent damage.
At 4, she fell into a lethargy that caused her to sleep for 14 days. Then, doctors diagnosed a brain tumor, and the Greenbergs bought a casket for her.
“We were preparing for our child to die,” Howard Greenberg said. “We were saying goodbye. And, then, we got a call that there was some change; that Brooke had opened her eyes and she was fine. There was no tumor. She overcomes every obstacle that is thrown her way.”
Brooke’s doctor said the source of her sudden illnesses remains a mystery.
ABC News video of Brooke Greenberg
To try to determine why Brooke’s aging process has been so irregular — and what it means to the understanding of our genetic makeup — Walker and Sutcliffe have studied samples of Brooke’s cells and DNA to look for what they think may be a genetic mutation never seen before that has affected the way she ages.
Walker, of the University of South Florida, believes that if the gene can be isolated, it may provide clues to questions about why we age and die.
“Without being sensational, I’d say this is an opportunity for us to answer the question, why we’re mortal, or at least to test it,” Walker said. “And if we’re wrong, we can discard it. But if we’re right, we’ve got the golden ring.”
If the gene — or complex of genes — is identified, Walker plans to test laboratory animals to determine whether the gene can be switched off and, if so, whether it will cause the animal’s aging to slow.
Walker thinks that Brooke is the first recorded case of what he describes as “developmental disorganization”. His hypothesis is that the cause is disruption of an as-yet unidentified gene, or genes, that hold the key to ageing by orchestrating how an organism matures to adulthood, reproduces, then gradually ages and dies. Walker believes that Brooke lacks this “regulator” of development
Video from 2005 of Brooke Greenberg