Medical Mystery: No Fingerprints

The surprising challenges of a rare genetic condition.

September 9, 2008, 9:58 AM

Sept. 5, 2008— -- This report originally ran on January 9, 2007.

Imagine touching glass and not leaving a mark -- virtually no trace of the complex lines and ridges that make up each individual fingerprint. Most of us take these identifying traits for granted. After all, everyone has fingerprints, right?


Flight attendant Cheryl Maynard does not have fingerprints, and that has made getting the security clearances she needs for her job a challenge.

Maynard has dealt with challenges due to her missing prints for her entire life. Her father was in the military and had top security clearance, so the entire family had to be fingerprinted frequently. In Maynard's case, that process was understandably difficult and raised a number of questions.

Maynard was born with a rare genetic disorder called DPR, or dermatopathia pigmentosa reticularis, and she's not only missing fingerprints -- she's also missing those unique marks on her toes, in addition to being unable to sweat.

The condition is passed down through the female side of the family. People that suffer from DPR can also have extremely thin hair, brittle, ridged nails and mottled skin. DPR is so rare that the Maynards were the only family in the world known to carry the genetic defect.

How is this condition possible? The ridges on our fingers and toes start forming in utero at about 11 weeks. However, if certain genes mutate, the body never creates the signals that form the prints -- resulting in the Maynard family condition, DPR, as well as approximately a hundred other genetic disorders that fall under the umbrella of ectodermal dysplasia syndromes, or E-D'S.

Caleb Radley, an 11-year-old boy, exhibits many of the same characteristics as Maynard.

"I have dry skin," he explained. "I don't have sweat glands, I have a little bit of hair, I don't have a lot of teethI don't have a fingerprint."

But while he and Maynard share many of the same symptoms, the fact that Radley has a small number of teeth, which are abnormally formed, distinguishes his condition from Maynard's DPR.

This condition may not seem life-threatening, but it can actually be extremely hazardous.

The inability to sweat turns every hot day or active play into a potential for heatstroke -- a danger Radley has been grappling with for his entire life. And Maynard is unable to spend more than a couple of minutes on a treadmill before having to immerse her head in water to cool off.

Fingerprint specialist Bill Reeves works for the Fairfax County Police department in Virginia, and has access to approximately 5 million prints. "Primetime" took Maynard to see him, without informing Reeves about her condition until after he tried to take her prints.

Unable to see decent images of her prints, Reeves brought up another troubling implication of her condition.

"As our society comes to embrace more biometric access for security, that could create some havoc for her," he said.

In a world that is increasingly conscious of security and of proof of identity, not having fingerprints can present a number of problems. So what, if anything, can be done?

The Maynards have given tissue samples to researchers at Rambam Hospital in Israel to try to figure out why these mutations occur, and that research has led to a recent breakthrough. The researchers have identified the gene responsible for Maynard's disorder -- which could help them determine how to treat the condition, and could have implications for skin cancer research as well.

While treatment is extremely far off, Maynard and her family are heartened by the possibility.

Radley has something to look forward to as well.

Apoxis, a Swiss company, has created a gene therapy to correct many issues involved with his disorder, and the company hopes to begin human trials in two years. If the trials are successful, this therapy could help improve development of teeth, hair and sweat glands for people that suffer from this E-D.

For More Information on Ectodermal Dysplasia:

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