World's Tallest Man Gets Radiation to Zap Growth

Photo: Worlds Tallest Man Gets Radiation to Zap Growth: Surgeons Perform Delicate Brain Surgery on Sultan KosenCourtesy Guinness World Records
The world's tallest man, Sultan Kosen of Turkey, walks in New York's Times Square in this Sept. 2009 file photo.

Sultan Kosen wants what many other 27-year-old men want in life -- to meet a wonderful woman, settle down and have a family.

But before he can focus on that, he's focusing on putting a stop to his increasing height.

He is more than eight feet tall and is considered by Guinness World Records to be the tallest living man.

Kosen suffers from gigantism, a rare condition caused by excessive secretion of growth hormone that results from a tumor on the pituitary gland.

"He has grown two inches in the last six months, so he's now eight-foot-four," said Dr. Jason Sheehan, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia.

Sheehan will perform a procedure on Kosen today that he says will stop him from growing any taller. The procedure, gamma knife radiosurgery, involves directing thin beams of radiation at Kosen's tumor.

"It inactivates the cells and they will slowly die, causing the tumor to shrink," said Sheehan. "The brain won't release any more growth hormone, and the hope is he'll stop growing."

Kosen and others with gigantism grow extremely tall and also have very large organs.

The radiation procedure can reverse Kosen's organ growth, Sheehan said. The bone growth, however, cannot be reversed.

"He will always remain tall," Sheehan said.

Life in the Limelight

On the day before the procedure, Kosen said he felt fine, but was exhausted after traveling from his native Turkey.

Through his translator, Kelly Garrett of Guinness World Records, he joked about his unusual stature and talked about life as the world's tallest living man. Garrett has traveled with Kosen for several months as he made public appearances.

"He can see everyone from a long distance and can also easily change bulbs and curtains for his mother," said Garrett.

There are many disadvantages as well.

"He can't go to regular stores to buy clothes or shoes and he can't fit into normal cars," said Garrett. "He has to have everything specially made, which is expensive."

He also gets tired easily.

"He has to carry around about 150 kilos [about 330 pounds]," said Garrett. "He also gets a lot of muscle aches and walks with a cane. He dislocated his knee a couple of years ago."

Kosen no longer hides his height from the public, Garrett said. Since he went into the record book in September, he's basking in the limelight.

"He gets recognized a lot, and he realized that people are genuinely interested in how he's doing," Garrett said.

High Hopes for Procedure

Guinness World Records paid for his travel expenses, and the University of Virginia is doing the procedure for free.

"He's nervous about the procedure, but he knows it's a very good opportunity to finally alleviate the tumor and the consequences of it and not have to take all the meds he's taking now," Garrett said.

Gigantism often is confused with acromegaly, which also is caused by overproduction of growth hormone as a result of a pituitary tumor.

The difference is when the tumor develops. If it develops during adolescence, it leads to gigantism. If it develops during adulthood, it causes acromegaly.

Those with acromegaly don't necessarily grow very tall, but often have bony overgrowths and oversized organs.

Medication is just one way to treat gigantism and acromegaly, and doctors say both are conditions that absolutely must be treated aggressively.

"If it's left untreated, it will lead to premature death," said Dr. Shlomo Melmed, dean of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who is not involved in Kosen's treatment. "There's a 30 percent increased mortality in patients who are uncontrolled."

Gigantism and acromegaly also put people at increased risk for other conditions.

"They are prone to arthritis and diabetes," Melmed said. "Growth hormone is a powerful antagonist to the action of insulin."

He added that there are generally three treatment options -- medication, surgery and radiation.

"Patients can have cosmetic surgery for their large jaws or orthopedic surgery for their joints," Melmed said.

He said the gamma knife radiosurgery procedure can be effective depending on the type and size of Kosen's tumor.

Sheehan believes the surgery will be a success.

"It could take six to 24 months for the tumor to shrink," he said. "But he has a very favorable prognosis."

The procedure should take about three or four hours. Sheehan expects him to be discharged this afternoon or Friday morning.

Kosen is scheduled to leave Virginia on Sunday and will head to California, where a dentist has offered to fix his teeth. He'll return to Turkey on Sept. 1.

He has a parting message for everyone in the U.S.

"He sends his heartfelt thanks to everyone who's gone out of their way to give him some kind of help," said Garrett.