Norman Apolo is a grown man, but stands less than four feet tall. Despite his diminutive size, he’s doing big things.
In a strange twist of fate, a doctor treating people with dwarfism in a remote village in Ecuador, including Apolo, may have inadvertently discovered what is being heralded as “a key to curing cancer.” It turns out that the same little people the doctor was trying to help may be the ones who help millions of others avoid cancer.
Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, a hormone expert from the Ecuadorian Institute of Endocrinology, began studying little people more than a decade ago with hopes of eradicating dwarfism, but in the process of figuring out the causes of their condition, stumbled on an amazing discovery: none of them had cancer.
Guevara noticed although Ecuador has high cancer rate areas, the disease didn’t seem to affect those with dwarfism. He discovered that the same hormone that prevented their bodies from growing to a normal size also halts the development of cancer and diabetes.
Apolo, who was diagnosed with Laron dwarfism in elementary school, and 119 other little people from a remote area in southern Ecuador are contributing to the development of a “highly effective cancer prevention drug” that is expected to begin clinical trials on adults at high risk for cancer and diabetes later this year.
People with Laron dwarfism are perfectly proportioned, but infrequently grow taller than four feet. There are a little more than 300 people globally with the condition, a third of whom live in remote villages in Ecuador’s southern Loja province. People with this condition lack a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF1.
What makes this discovery perhaps so remarkable is although scientists have previously observed a base immunity to cancer in mice, flies and worms in which IGH1 is removed, this was the first time it has been observed in humans who have little or no IGF1, such as with people with Laron dwarfism.
“I think if we did not have the human population, then the research would be delayed by years," said Dr. Valter Longo of the University of Southern California, who has replicated the Laron mutation in mice.