Thousands of years ago, one single ancestor passed down a mutated gene that prevented his descendants from growing more than four feet tall. Now called Laron Syndrome, only 350 people in the world are known to have it, and a third of them live in an isolated village in southern Ecuador.
These little people are of great interest to scientists, because though they have diets high in fat or tip the scales at morbidly obese, they are cancer free, don’t get diabetes or Alzheimer’s, and are more often than not in perfect health.
Cancer researchers believe that the same thing about Laron Syndrome that keeps its sufferers small may also prevent the diseases of old age.
Dr. Jamie Guevara-Acguirre has been studying Laron Syndrome for 30 years, and spoke to NBC News in an exclusive report about this cutting-edge research. He said that in three decades, only one of his patients has died of cancer, “and that is fascinating.”
It also makes people like Merci Valarezo proud to suffer from a disease that once gave her great shame. She is 50-years-old, stands three-and-a-half feet tall, and is considered morbidly obese at 127 pounds.
“I didn’t like to leave my house. I would cry. I didn’t want anyone to see me. One day, I hid behind my sister-in-law so no one would see me.”
But the contrast of her poor diet — lots of carbs and fats — and her excellent health have scientists very interested in the condition and how its unique features can be harnessed as a treatment for cancer and a host of other debilitating diseases. Researchers also hope to find a cure for those suffering from Laron Syndrome.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Laron Syndrome results when the body is unable to use growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland. People with the illness are normal size at birth, but grow slower than normal starting in early childhood. Sufferers also have short limbs, small hands and feet, weak muscles, and poor endurance, low blood sugar, small genitals, and delayed puberty. They also have unique facial features, like a protruding forehead, saddle nose, and a blue tint to the whites of their eyes.
Scientists are working on unlocking the mechanism of the disease so that the natural mutation can be mimicked in an anti-aging, anti-cancer, anti-Alzheimer’s, and heart disease pill. Those with Laron Syndrome have a defect in a receptor in their liver that should bind to the hormone to create something called growth factor 1, which is like insulin. The absence of this growth factor could also keep cells from growing and turning into cancer, and acts as a protector against diabetes.
Dr. Valter Longo has already simulated Laron Syndrome in rats, and saw some amazing results, though he said a medicine for humans is a decade away.
“The mice actually lived 50 percent longer and get a lot less diseases. It’s very clear in the mice. Can it be true for people?”
In addition to harnessing Laron Syndrome into a cancer-fighting medication, the research is also trying to help the youngest sufferers of the disease live normal lives.
A potential treatment involves giving the missing growth hormone to people with the disease who haven’t yet hit puberty, which would let them grow to full height. However, a lot of money is needed for the 30 young people who qualify: about $1 million a month.
“We tried very hard to convince the pharmaceutical companies to donate so that we can give them free IGF-1,” Longo said. “We haven’t succeeded thus far, so we hope that changes. I think as little as a $10 million endowment will solve their problem permanently.”
This treatment will also be helpful to cancer and disease research because when those given the growth hormone grow to full size, scientists can see whether or not the disease’s protective benefits have stayed with them.
“I have made them aware of how beautiful they are,” Guevara-Aguirre said. “Because they are really spectacular in every sense.”
[Photo by Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock]