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These People May Hold the Key to the Aging Process

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Health
July 21, 2014

These People May Hold the Key to the Aging Process

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Health
July 21, 2014

Photo of Mackenzee Wittke and mom Kim from Facebook/Kim Witke.

Can a young Canadian girl hold the secret to the fountain of youth? She just might, according to Richard Walker, a Florida-based researcher whose latest study involves examining the DNA of Mackenzee Wittke — a 6-year-old who is the size of an infant — and six other girls like her. 

“The pitfall of the scientist is to hope for something,” Walker, a retired professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, told Yahoo Health. “But the potential here is to find the genes that cause us to develop and, subsequently, to grow older.” Walker, who is 74 and has dedicated his 50-year career to the study of aging, adds, “I want to find the answer before I check out.”

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The perplexing conditions of Wittke and the others in the study — including a 9-year-old in Montana who weighs just 12 pounds, and a 25-year-old woman who physically and developmentally resembles a 6-year-old — are medical mysteries. Their cases are similar to that of Brooke Greenberg, the “20-year-old toddler” who received quite a bit of media attention before dying in 2013; she had lived her entire life with the physical and cognitive function of a 1-year-old. “Now we know that Brooke was not an oddity,” said Walker, who had studied her for years, “but evidence of a syndrome.”

He believes that, through nailing down the details of the as-of-yet-determined syndrome (sometimes referred to as “Syndrome X”), it could be possible to discover the secret to staying forever young — a thought that’s appealed to him since childhood, when he lived with extended family including his grandparents and great-grandparents. “Even when I was a boy,” he recalled, “I found the idea of growing old and decrepit repugnant.”

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But Walker, who is the current editor in chief of the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, readily admitted that finding the key to endless youth would bring with it a host of complex issues. “Of course if we could slow down the aging process, we get into all sorts of social and ethical problems,” he said. But scientifically speaking, it would be revolutionary, hopefully buying more time for people prone to diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s until treatments are developed. “It would have great clinical and medical significance, and help many people to avoid a lot of suffering,” he added.

In his latest study, for which the seven girls and their family members had blood samples collected in early July, Walker is sequencing genomes — meaning he’ll examine every single part of their DNA and analyze any mutations. “Besides being tedious, it’s very expensive,” he says, explaining that the California-based Complete Genomics is teaming up with him to make it cost-free to everyone involved. Through the study, he’ll also look at the nongenetic factors (environmental or chemical) that might be at play. Walker expects to have some initial raw data by the end of summer, and from there, he plans to test age-related gene complexes in mice.

For the Wittkes, though, taking part in the research is mainly an opportunity to better understand the condition of their daughter Mackenzee, who weighs just 16 pounds and is developmentally similar to a 6-month-old baby. The same goes for Mary Margret Williams, mother of Gabby, the 9-year-old study participant. Neither parent, according to a recent article in Maclean’s in Canada, shares Walker’s desire to find a way to halt the aging process. “Our goal is not to have a fountain of youth,” Mary Margret, a staunch Catholic, told the publication. “I think we’re all meant to be babies, and grow old and die, and that’s the way God made our world.” She and Kim Wittke, however, do share Walker’s desire to help slow disease-related suffering. “If my daughter can help with that, I think it would be astounding,” Kim says. “But the main thing, for us, is to find out something for Mackenzee.” (Neither Mary Margaret nor Kim could be reached for comment by Yahoo Health.)

Walker’s general theory about aging is that our bodies, after reaching a physical peak, have a tendency to keep remodeling and moving forward, even though it’s unnecessary, which causes problems. “It’s like tuning an engine in a car but then continuing to screw around with the carburetor, making it worse instead of better,” he explained. And whether he’s right or wrong about his theory — and about whether Mackenzee and Gabby and the others are a part of finding the key — he’s confident that science will eventually solve the mystery of aging. “We’re definitely going to figure this out,” he said, “There’s no doubt.” Whether the greater population will be allowed to access the secrets, because of the many social implications, is another story, he added.