by Jessie Roberts
Richard Walker, a scientist who specializes in aging research, believes the key to ending human aging lies in a rare disease known as “syndrome X.” Babies afflicted with the condition grow older but not bigger, remaining physically “marked by what seems to be a permanent state of infancy.” Here’s an excerpt from Virginia Hughes’s arresting account of Walker’s quest for immortality:
Brooke’s body seemed to be developing not as a coordinated unit, [Walker] wrote, but rather as a collection of individual, out-of-sync parts. He used her feeding problems as a primary example. To feed normally, an infant must use mouth muscles to create suction, jaw muscles to open and close the mouth, and the tongue to move the food to the back of the throat. If these systems weren’t coordinated properly in Brooke, it could explain why she had such trouble feeding. Her motor development had gone similarly awry: she didn’t learn to sit up until she was six years old and never learned to walk. “She is not simply ‘frozen in time’,” Walker wrote. “Her development is continuing, albeit in a disorganised fashion.”
The big question remained: why was Brooke developmentally disorganised? It wasn’t nutritional and it wasn’t hormonal. The answer had to be in her genes. Walker suspected that she carried a glitch in a gene (or a set of genes, or some kind of complex genetic program) that directed healthy development. There must be some mechanism, after all, that allows us to develop from a single cell to a system of trillions of cells. This genetic program, Walker reasoned, would have two main functions: it would initiate and drive dramatic changes throughout the organism, and it would also coordinate these changes into a cohesive unit.
Ageing, he thought, comes about because this developmental program, this constant change, never turns off. From birth until puberty, change is crucial:
we need it to grow and mature. After we’ve matured, however, our adult bodies don’t need change, but rather maintenance. “If you’ve built the perfect house, you would want to stop adding bricks at a certain point,” Walker says. “When you’ve built a perfect body, you’d want to stop screwing around with it. But that’s not how evolution works.” Because natural selection cannot influence traits that show up after we have passed on our genes, we never evolved a “stop switch” for development, Walker says. So we keep adding bricks to the house. At first this doesn’t cause much damage – a sagging roof here, a broken window there. But eventually the foundation can’t sustain the additions, and the house topples. This, Walker says, is ageing.
Brooke was special because she seemed to have been born with a stop switch. The media were fascinated by her case. Walker appeared with the Greenberg family on television several times and explained why he was so interested in Brooke’s genes. “This is an opportunity for us to answer the question ‘Why are we mortal?’” he said on Good Morning America. “If we’re right, we’ve got the golden ring.”