Her blood tells a story.
And it's a very, very long story.
Born in 1890, Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper once had the honour of being the world's oldest woman. Today — years after her death — her blood is under the microscope.
And it's telling us a lot about the limits of our own mortality.
In a study published this week in the journal Genome Research, Dutch scientists conducted a deep analysis of van Andel-Schipper's blood and tissues, finding that human life does indeed have an expiry date. It's set by our cells' ability to divide.
And it's limited.
Once a stem cell has reached that cap — literally dividing itself to death — it can no longer replenish tissues.
According to New Scientist, van Andel-Schipper was down to just two stem cells at the time of her demise — fueling two-thirds of her white blood cells. Virtually every stem cell she began her long life with had burned out.
"Is there a limit to the number of stem cell divisions, and does that imply that there's a limit to human life?" research head Henne Holstege of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam told New Scientist. "Or can you get round that by replenishment with cells saved from earlier in your life?"
Van Andel-Schipper's case is especially unique in that she was reportedly in pristine shape until very close to her death in 2005. According to New Scientist, she enjoyed 'crystal clear cognition' and a blood circulatory system free of disease.
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As noted in Discover, humans begin life with as many as 20,000 hematopoietic stem cells. These cells, so-named because they fuel the body with fresh blood cells — basically renewing themselves very 25 to 50 weeks.
The fact that van Andel-Schipper had whittled down her stem cells to just a pair over her long life suggests that mortality is capped. But it also suggests scientists might find ways to remove that cap.
Lead study author Henne Holstege is zeroing in on those stem cells, telling Discovery, that old bodies might be rejuvenated by injecting them with operational stem cells from other bodies.
“We need to analyse the genomes of more individuals just as special as Mrs. van Andel-Schipper: cognitively healthy and extremely old," Holstege told Time.