24 October 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 630
Researchers have fully sequenced the genome of a woman who lived to be 115 years old. She is the longest-surviving person to have their DNA sequenced and the data may help to unlock the secrets of longer life. Initial investigations suggest that the woman may have had genes which provided protection from diseases such as dementia.
The woman, referred to as W115 by the scientists but named as Mrs Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper by the Daily Mail, remained healthy for much of her life. She presented neither symptoms of dementia such as Alzheimer's, nor any serious cognitive deterioration. Whilst van Andel-Schipper chalked up her good health to daily pickled herring, researchers believe she may have had a natural genetic advantage. 'We think that there are genes that may ensure a long life and be protective against Alzheimer's', said study leader Dr Gert Holstege from the VU University Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
The research was presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Human Genetics in Montreal, Canada. It follows on from earlier work by the group into van Andel-Schipper's mental health when she was 112 and 113. In these psychological tests, van Andel-Schipper performed at a level that would normally be expected of someone in their late sixties.
That earlier study had additionally found no traces of any diseases in van Andel-Schipper's brain. They counted the number of neurons in the brain, noting that it 'corresponded with the number of neurons found in the brains of healthy people of 60 to 80 years old'. Van Andel-Schipper also showed no signs of heart disease.
'We know that she's special, we know that her brain had absolutely no signs of Alzheimer's', Dr Holstege told the BBC. 'There must be something in her body that is protective against dementia. We think that there are genes that may ensure a long life and be protective against Alzheimer's'.
However, Dr Jeffrey Barrett, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, cautions that there is much more work to be done and more data to be collected before scientists are able to pinpoint any genes responsible for long life. 'Sequencing the genome of the world's oldest woman is an important starting point to understand how DNA variation relates to the process of having a long, healthy life', he told the BBC. 'But in order to really understand the underlying biology of living a long, healthy life, we will need to look at the DNA sequence of hundreds or thousands of people'.