Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was 115 years old when she died of old age in 2005 and donated her body to science. After several years of analysis, scientists have come a little closer to understanding the secrets of longevity.
What they learned is that the lifespan of humans might be limited by the ability of stem cells to keep replenishing tissues.
Andel-Schipper was born in 1890 and led a disease-free life with a clear and capable mind until her death. She is the oldest person to ever donate her body to science.
Scientists from the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam fronted the study. They found that by the end of Andel-Schipper’s life, she had only two viable stem cells that were continuing to produce white blood cells.
At birth, most people have around 20,000 blood stem cells. Usually, around 1,000 are active at any given time to help replenish the blood supply. Additionally, the researchers found that the length of the telomeres of white blood cells were 17 times shorter than those in the brain.
Telomeres are protective tips on the end of chromosomes, similar to the aglets of a shoelace. As a cell replicates throughout its life, this tip burns down like a candle wick every time. Once a telomere becomes too short, the cell dies. White blood cells replicate frequently throughout life, while the cells of the brain typically stay the same after birth. By comparing the two different cells, scientists were able to see exactly how depleted Andel-Schipper’s telomeres were.
Because of this finding, scientists “speculate that most hematopoietic stem cells may have died from ‘stem cell exhaustion,’ reaching the upper limit of stem cell divisions,” said Dr. Henne Holstege, who led the study.
This research is important to scientists because it might provide a key to increasing lifespans by using stem cells.
“If I took a sample now and gave it back to myself when I’m older, I would have long telomeres again—although it might only be possible with blood, not other tissue,” Dr. Holstege said.
As of right now, scientists have a more immediate research goal in sight. They hope to use the results in correlation with studies on Alzheimer’s disease to reveal why some people are more susceptible to the disease at an early age.More