Genetic mutations linked to dwarfism may help prevent cancer, diabetes

By • Published: May 17th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Could protection from cancer and diabetes be tied to a person’s height?

In some cases, that may be true. Researchers writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, conducted a long-term study of about 1,700 extended family members living in Ecuador. One-hunded-and-fifty of the family members were afflicted with a specific form of dwarfism. During the 22-year study, only one of them developed cancer. None suffered from diabetes, despite high rates of obesity.

Meanwhile, their normal-height relatives developed these diseases at normal rates. What’s behind the absence of the two deadly illnesses among little people? The genetic mutations that led to their dwarfism may be responsible.

These mutations cause very low levels of two growth hormones, preventing people who have them from reaching normal height. One of the hormones is related to insulin sensitivity within the body. The other helps regulate cell growth and death. The two hormones act like double-edged swords. They are necessary for normal growth, but they also promote aging and instability within a person’s genome.

In some cases, that can lead to cancer or diabetes. But people with low levels of these hormones, including the people studied in Ecuador, almost never have to worry about that.

They do, however, have plenty of other concerns. Those with dwarfism were more likely to die from heart disease, convulsive disorders, accidents and alcohol-related problems than were their normal-height relatives.

The scientists also found that serum taken from the small-statured study participants helped to repair human cells damaged by hydrogen peroxide. It’s too soon to say whether the findings will lead to new ways to help prevent cancer and diabetes, but research may one day turn up a way to provide everyone with the protection little people enjoy.