Science

Blood from world’s oldest woman set to spill the secrets of long life

 

Blood donated from the world’s oldest and healthiest woman has given an exciting insight into the process of ageing, raising the possibility of defying death in the future.

Data published in Genome Research has suggested that life is limited by the exhaustion of stem cells that replenish our body tissues. At birth, 20,000 stem cells work to regenerate new cells, but in the blood of the oldest woman, only two were found to remain.

The late Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, born in 1890, reached a remarkable age of 115 before passing away in 2005. She was in astonishingly good health and didn’t seem to suffer any form of dementia, with a perfectly clear cognition. Donating her body to research, she asked that any outcomes of experiments would be made public.

Henne Holstege, of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, led a team of scientists to study the blood of this remarkable woman in the hopes that it might give clues into how and why we age and die.

By looking closely at the white blood cells and studying the pattern of mutation, they could calculate how many stem cells divided and produced them. This study of somatic mutations, mutations that occur after birth that are not genetically passed on, is the first of its kind in an older, healthy person.

The team found that only two stem cells had produced two-thirds of Andel-Schipperís white blood cells, suggesting that most and nearly all of the blood stem cells had perished and died. The death of stem cells means the body cannot replenish the tissues, and this finding suggests their ability to divide limits our lifespan.

The absence of harmful somatic mutations that cause disease has Holstege and her team particularly excited, suggesting that the late centenarian had an exceptional repair system that could give clues into treating disease.

Looking deeper at the white blood cells, Holstege and colleagues also found that the telomeres – important DNA regions of chromosomes that protect the cells from deterioration – were very short. Telomeres shorten during cell division, and the telomeres of Andel-Schippersí cells were found to be very small, seventeen times shorter than brain cells, which don’t divide like blood.

These findings raise exciting possibilities that an injection of stem cells saved from earlier life could rejuvenate the body and slow the ageing process. Holstege said, ‘If I took a sample now and gave it back to myself when I’m older, I would have long telomeres again.’

Beating the ageing process, however, is only a concept and a dream; research has a far way to go before becoming a reality. So, for now, we can only take note of Andel-Schippers’ wisdom in living a happy and extended life. Before her death she said eating herring and drinking orange juice every day was the secret to her longevity, advising also: ‘Don’t smoke or drink too much. And you must remain active.’

Shanna Hamilton

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