Blood test could clear-up 'oldest person' debate
A British scientist says the debate over whether the age of Jeanne Calment – the French woman considered to have died aged 122 as the oldest-ever person – was faked could be settled definitively after it came to light that a French lab has a sample of that person’s blood.
Dr Aubrey de Grey of SENS Research Foundation in California, who has a global reputation in the anti-ageing field, says he hopes to persuade the lab to release a sample of the blood for DNA tests, thus avoiding having to exhume her body.
There were calls at the start of this year for the body of Jeanne Calment, who died in Arles in 1997, to be exhumed for tests after new Russian research claimed to provide evidence that the woman who died then was really Jeanne’s daughter Yvonne who was officially supposed to have died of pneumonia aged 36 in 1934.
The research was based on mathematical probability analyses of her age, re-examination of historical evidence and study of old photographs.
It is suggested that it was really Jeanne who died in 1934, aged 59, and Yvonne then pretended to be her mother for the next 63 years so as to avoid inheritance taxes and to continue benefiting from a pension.
The person said to be Jeanne also benefited after selling her home en viager when she was officially aged 90, and outliving the buyer, whose widow continued paying her for 19 months (the photo shows Yvonne and Jeanne together, with Jeanne on the right).
In en viager the seller receives a lump sum and a rent for life and the buyer only obtains use of the property when the seller dies.
Among the many complex points raised in the Russian research is that, after becoming famous for her great age, Jeanne Calment referred to meeting Vincent Van Gogh, who died in 1890, in her father’s shop.
The paper claims that this is a ‘curious confusion’ as there is no evidence that Jeanne’s father ever had a store, whereas Yvonne’s father did.
Those sceptical of the claims said it was improbable such a scam could succeed, however a director of research at French national demographics body Ined, Nicolas Brouard, called the Russian research "good work" and a sound argument for exhumation.
The research originally attracted media attention after it was published informally on the internet by Russian mathematician Nicolay Zak the end of last year and also publicised in online articles by a Russian longevity activist Yuri Deigin.
It was then accepted for peer-reviewed scientific journal Rejuvenation Research and published at the end of January.
Dr de Grey, who is editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, says Dr Zak has now found that a sample of the blood of the person who died in 1997 still exists and Dr de Grey is hoping it may be released for tests.
The sample was taken in the early 1990s when Jeanne was 117 as part of a study called Chronos organised by the Fondation Dausset in Paris, a genetic research centre founded by a Nobel prizewinner. The study was considering possible factors in the longevity of centenarians.
In 1997 one of two French researchers who validated her age, Jean-Marie Robine, stated that Jeanne herself was “intrigued by her longevity” and had eagerly accepted blood tests.
Dr de Grey said: “I’m hoping to persuade the foundation in Paris to release the sample, which would involve certain negotiations – it’s delicate because it the samples were originally isolated on condition of anonymity, but it’s by no means impossible.”
Speaking at the largest-ever anti-ageing science conference, Undoing Aging, which he organised in Berlin, he said DNA analysis of the blood can show if it was Jeanne’s or Yvonne’s.
“Because of inbreeding, Yvonne only had 12 great-great-grandparents whereas Jeanne had the usual 16, and this provides the most cast-iron evidence as possible, to see which is which.”
It is possible to have almost 100% proof with this method as this kind of difference is “ridiculously rare”, he said.
Such DNA tests were not done in the 1990s when the original verifications of Jeanne’s age were carried out.
The technology to do them was available but it is not clear that relevant facts were available then to motivate the analysis being done, namely the consanguinity (unusual bloodline for Yvonne) or that the 'switch' idea was a reasonable hypothesis.
He added: “People have been talking about exhuming the person who died in 1997, which I imagine the family would be opposed to and there may also be opposition to on other grounds, including that it’s just not important enough a question to do it. So it’s very important that this has come to light.”
What is more, he said releasing the blood for further testing now would give a chance to apply modern analysis techniques which could help to find clues as to how Jeanne Calment lived so long, in the event that the blood is confirmed to be hers.
Dr de Grey added: “My personal view when Nikolay first came to me was that it was about 50/50 as to whether the person who died in 1997 was Jeanne or Yvonne, but it’s changing fast as new evidence comes along – perhaps now it’s 30/70 in favour of the research.
"I would be very disappointed if there was a switch, because if she wasn’t very old it’s not very interesting. But I’m not worried about that now, all I want is for the samples to be released.”
He stated in an editorial piece along with the original article by Dr Zak that the gerontological community is in ‘turmoil’ over the findings since they were released informally last year.
However he said it is vital that when scientific findings are wrong, that this is admitted, and there is no shame to it.
"Science would progress so much faster if scientists were applauded, rather than downgraded, for changing their views in the light of new data," he wrote.
He told Connexion he has not yet made a formal request for the sample to be released, but has been "preparing to press for it" and has been “putting out feelers” as to who can sign off the requests.
He has also been “gently bugging” Michel Allard and Jean-Marie Robine, the French experts who verified her age, for their help in having the sample released, though at present they appear reluctant, he said.
“They were the original validators [of Jeanne Calment's age], so in a way they have the right to lead the effort to request the release of the sample, and if they did agree to lead it then that would raise the chance of the Fondation Dausset saying yes," he said.
“They do not need to say that the purpose of releasing the sample is to test the identity switch. They – indeed even I – should instead write with the assumption that there was not a switch, and thus that the sample is of the world’s oldest-ever person by three years, and thus that we may learn really biomedically important information from it.”
Dr Zak said: “Only Aubrey is pushing for this. People in this field are being very protective of Calment, saying it's a conspiracy theory and there's no need for the tests. And they say it's difficult to release an individual's cells under French law.”
PHOTO: longevity activist and genealogy enthusiast Yuri Deigin talks about his own research into the Calment controversy, which he says backs up Nikolay Zak's findings (the photo above showing facial feature comparisons and the reproduction of the last known photo of Jeanne and Yvonne are also from a display by Mr Deigin at the Undoing Aging conference, which brought together 500 scientists, investors, entrepreneurs, activists and media).
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France