A tiny, remote Ecuadorian village has had a rough lot, you might think. They're dwarves, descended from a lineage of Portuguese and Spaniards, coerced into Christian conversion and then persecuted by the Inquisition. The upshot? They don't get cancer.
They're afflicted with what's known as Laron syndrome—the genetic mutation responsible for their diminutive size (below 3.5 feet, on average). But this same mutation also robs the villagers of a cellular receptor responsible for pumping out growth hormone—and it's this robbery, the New York Times reports, that simultaneously imbues them with an apparent immunity to both cancer and diabetes. After 24 years of study by an Ecuadorian doctor, the 99 tracked villagers came down with startlingly few cases of either ailment. "I discovered the population in 1987," explains Dr. Guevara-Aguirre. "In 1994, I noticed these patients were not having cancer compared with their relatives." The obvious effect of growth hormone deficiency is—yes-not growing. That's why they're dwarves. But their cells have superpowers.
When researchers applied a genetic serum derived from the Laron villagers to cells in a petri dish, they observed two incredible effects—it acted as a shield against artificial damage. And when damage did occur, the the cells self-destructed—heading off the proliferation of faulty cells that leads to the growth of cancer.
So what does this mean for the rest of us? Great things, maybe. Lowered levels of growth hormone could be the key to longer life—mice bred by Ohio University have similarly impaired receptors are living 40% longer than their peers. In fact, the oldest mouse in scientific history nearly reached five years—and had a defective growth hormone gene, just like the Ecuadorian villagers.
Now, mice are mice. And we're not mice. But the more we understand about our bodies and why they (inevitably) break, the more we can do to stop it. Or at least slow it. Now please give me a syringe of that dwarf serum that I can stick into my neck right now. [NYT]