Ecuadorean Dwarfs May Unlock Cancer Clues

VIDEO: Scientific research finds a natural resistance to diabetes and cancer in DNA.
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It's been more than two years since I traveled to Ecuador to meet endocrinologist Jaime Guevara, and the population of remarkable people who are helping scientists identify a way to stop cancer and diabetes from growing in our bodies. Dr. Guevara has been studying the Laron Dwarfs for 25 years, for the last decade he has been collaborating with Dr. Valter Longo, a researcher on aging at the University of Southern California. This week the two men released the findings of the research we chronicled in a series of reports on ABC News in 2008.

In Wednesday's issue of the journal "Science Translational Medicine" they revealed that the broken gene that causes dwarfism in a population of about 100 people in the remote mountains of Ecuador also offers them protection from cancer and diabetes. A 22 year study of the Larons has confirmed that none has ever had diabetes and only one had cancer and that cancer was not lethal. In contrast, the study looked at 1,600 normal-height relatives who live in the same towns and found that despite similar lifestyles 5 percent got diabetes and 17 percent got cancer.

View Photos of the Laron Dwarfs

As part of the research they mixed components from the Laron participants' blood with human cells from people not affected by the syndrome and found those components protect against cell damage and alter some genes that have been linked to life extension. When growth hormone was blocked in studies of mice they lived up to 40 per cent longer.

Surprisingly, Laron patients don't live longer than their taller relatives, Dr. Longo said. But many have emotional problems related to their Dwarfism and so the main causes of death are substance abuse and accidents.

Dr. Longo said drugs that block the growth hormone receptor in humans are already on the market for other purposes. In the next 12 months he hopes to start drug trials on a human population with a high propensity for cancer and diabetes. If the tests are successful, a pill to prevent cancer and diabetes could soon be as common as Lipitor and other statins are in the prevention of heart disease.

Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre and the Laron subjects in Ecuador.
Photo credit: Jaime Guevara-Aguirre and Science Translational Medicine

Here is the story of my 2008 trip to Ecuador to meet the Laron Dwarfs:

My left hand grabs the car seat, my right hand firmly clasps the handle above the passenger door inside our rented 4-by-4. We are bouncing our way up a deeply rutted road, passing banana trees and grazing donkeys.

This is remote, rural southern Ecuador. A tropical Appalachia that until recently was cut off from the rest of the world. It seems the most unlikely of places to go in search of the cause of cancer, and maybe a cure.

Behind the wheel of the 4-by-4 is Dr. Jaime Guevara, an endocrinologist from Quito, Ecuador's capital. Almost 25 years ago, he began studying a scattered group of dwarfs in this area who have a rare disorder called Laron dwarfism, or Laron syndrome, that stunts their growth. In medical terms, their growth hormone receptors are blocked.

"There are only about 300 patients, and there are about 100 in Ecuador," says Guevara as he navigates the twisting road. "So in Ecuador you can find about one-third of the world's population with this disorder."

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