Scientists are studying a group of dwarfs living in Ecuador that seem to be immune to diabetes and cancer.
The family lives in a remote part of the country, and has a condition called Laron dwarfism that appears to be caused by inbreeding. Though they grow to only 4 feet, the condition appears to make them immune to cancer and other age-related diseases.
Laron dwarfism is a genetic defect that causes its sufferers to lack a hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1, or IGF-1.
In people without Laron dwarfism, the IGF-1 hormone stimulates cells to grow and divide to form new cells. Too much of it leads to breast, prostate and bowel cancers.
Researchers are now trying to develop a drug that they hope will mimic the genetic defect of Laron syndrome and that protects against DNA damage.
Dr. Jaimie Guevara-Aguirre, a hormone expert from the Ecuadorian Institute of Endocrinology, and Dr. Valter Longo at the Universtiy of Southern California, have studied the Laron group for 20 years.
They found that having less IGF1 leads to less DNA damage. DNA damage is what occurs as we age and leads to increased risk of cancer.
Guevara-Aguirre and Longo also believe that Laron dwarfs are immune to diabetes, as they have an increased risk of being obese due to their eating habits but have not developed the disease.
Guevara-Aguirre said he wanted to study Laron syndrome after he grew up near people who had it in the small town he lived in.
"I had seen maybe 20 of them on the streets when I was young," he said.
He then went around taking blood samples from families with the syndrome and interviewed them.
Every week, for years, he found more and more people with it.
It was Guevara-Aguirre who collected most of the data, while Longo set out to develop the anticancer and antiaging drugs inspired by Laron syndrome.
Longo founded DSR Pharmaceuticals in 2008, which aimed to develop a pill that blocks the growth hormone receptor.
The pill was approved to treat acromegaly, which is a condition that makes its sufferers have too much growth hormone. This results in them having larger hands, feet and face as well as abnormal growth of other body tissues. Longo thinks it could also help treat or prevent cancer, too.