Doctor predicts Brooke Greenberg breakthrough

Oct 20, 2009
Harry Underwood

Gene tests on 16-year-old Maryland girl who still has the body of a toddler

A Florida doctor believes he may be close to unravelling the genetic mystery of Brooke Greenberg, the 16-year-old from Maryland who still has the body and brain of a toddler.

Brooke, whose story first came to public attention in 2001 when she was featured in Dateline, NBC's news magazine programme, was born in 1993 but weighs a mere 16 pounds and is only two and a half feet tall. The reasons why she can't yet walk, talk or do anything else expected of a normal teenager is a mystery which has baffled some of America's finest medical minds.
So far, despite geneticists managing to sequence Greenberg's DNA, her doctors have only been able to define her condition as Syndrome X, and note that her organs seem to be developing at different rates. Tests on genes associated with premature aging diseases, such as Werner syndrome and Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome, have revealed nothing abnormal.

When doctors said Brooke had a brain tumour, her parents bought a coffin Now, Dr Richard Walker, a biologist at the South Florida College of Medicine, is optimistic that he will be able to work out just why this little girl still has the bones of a ten-year-old and the body of a toddler. "I think that she has in her a modified gene which prevents her from aging," Dr Walker told Paris Match. "My objective is to find it."

Walker has had blood taken from Brooke in the past two weeks and expects the results of the tests in three months' time. "If my first hypothesis turns out to be true, then everything is possible. I intend to test her mutant gene on an animal to see if it works in the same way as it does in Brooke in terms of absence of aging,"
Certainly, nothing from Brooke's incident-packed medical history has explained her failure to develop into a teenager. Born with an anterior hip dislocation, doctors had to operate to correct her legs from bending up towards her shoulders. Then, in her early years, she suffered from seven perforated stomach ulcers, and a seizure which was later discovered to have been a stroke.  

When she was four, Brooke fell into a deep sleep, from which she didn't regain consciousness for 14 days. When her doctors said they had discovered a brain tumour, her parents assumed she had little time to live, and bought a coffin.

"We were preparing for our child to die," Brooke's father Howard Greenberg told ABC News earlier this year. "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 tumour. She overcomes every obstacle that is thrown her way."

‘We could start to answer questions as old as time: Is immortality imaginable?’

So Brooke has survived, and nobody yet knows for sure whether she will survive for longer or for less than the average human lifespan. Her parents proudly describe a happy child who is able to laugh and recognise familiar faces.

Today, 16-year-old Brooke watches television, enjoys trips to the shopping mall in her pram, and attends a Baltimore County school for children with special needs. But she still has to be fed through a tube to her stomach, because of the risk of any food escaping her gullet and getting into her lungs.

Dr Walker, who has worked on Brooke's peculiar case since 2005, is very excited about the potential ramifications of discovering the truth about her condition. He said that after the results of her blood tests come through in January 2010, "we could then perhaps start to answer questions as old as time: why do we get older? Why are we mortal? Is immortality imaginable?

"My role as a biologist is to bring a scientific answer. I leave it to the care of politicians to decide on the ethical issues that this question raises."

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