Woman, 112, aids gene science with DNA

Saturday February 25, 2012

CHESHIRE -- Bernice Madigan never planned on reaching age 112, but now that she’s arrived she’s happy to share any wellness secrets that may be hiding in her genes.

The Cheshire resident -- the 19th-oldest living person on Earth -- recently donated a vial of her blood so that scientists can map her genome in search of both keys to longevity and better methods of using DNA in the medical world.

"I just feel that if there’s anything I can say or do, I’d be glad to do it," said Madigan, known to most as Bennie. "But I’m as much at sea about why I made 112."

Madigan’s chromosomes, along with those of 99 other centenarians, will be the raw material for competitors in the Archon Genomics X Prize presented by Medco, a contest taking place next year which challenges professionals in the genome sequencing world to develop better methods to see inside genes.

Born in July 1899, Madigan tries out different hypotheses to explain her long life -- the fact that she never had children ("no stress, no strain") or that she’s perennially cheery -- but leaves it to the scientists to try to find an answer that sticks.

With a $10 million award on the table, research teams will be charged with mapping the centenarians’ genomes, aiming for the most correct sequence based on a new software that will measure accuracy. The X Prize Foundation created this incentivized approach to encourage the improvement of genome sequencing, according to senior director Grant Campany. His hope is that genomes can someday have more widespread medical use, like helping demonstrate what genetic disease propensities a person has.

After the competition, the 100 centenarians’ genomes will be a part of a public database that any researcher can access; besides the inherent curiosity that surrounds them, these very elderly folks are being selected for the competition because they are often a picture of wellness.

"One of the things we know from existing longevity research is the older you, are the more likely it is that your longevity is genetically related," Campany said. "Most evade disease for that entire lifespan; these people never get cancer, Parkinson’s, dementia, cardiovascular diseases. The opportunity is to look at these people as a resource of what is a very healthy person ... to serve as a reference to genome researchers to understand the reason they live that long."

When it comes to health, Madigan says she’s doing just fine. She retired on disability from her government job because of a debilitating sciatica in 1940, but the back pain disappeared and hasn’t returned. She’s had a few bouts with pneumonia and, starting at age 105, began suffering from falls -- but every time, she’s bounced back.

"Look at me. I’m 112, and I still feel fine," she said. "I’ve got my problems, but they don’t bother me that much."

To reach Amanda Korman:
or (413) 496-6243.


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