Loja is a remote place, a province located in the mountains in the south of Ecuador. To the east lies a forest that quickly becomes the Amazon. The border with Peru is not much further south, though journeys in this region tend to be slow.
In this hard-to-reach zone live a number of people — about 100 — with a special trait: They seem to be protected from certain diseases that devastate the rest of the world.
This group represents approximately one-third of the global population of people with what’s known as Laron syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes the body unable to use growth hormone. The primary symptom of the disorder is dwarfism, but as many years of study have shown, the syndrome also seems to protect against cancer, diabetes, and other diseases that are some of the most common causes of death in the world.
What’s more, scientists think that if we can understand this unusual constellation of symptoms, there’s a chance we could replicate them. It might be possible to take the biological pathway that causes these effects in people with Laron syndrome and recreate it in otherwise healthy adults, according to Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology and biological science and the director of the USC Longevity Institute.
Doing so, we might be able to drastically reduce the number of people who suffer from diabetes and cancer, and potentially also from autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses, according to Longo. This wouldn’t just increase people’s lifespans — they’d stay healthier for those longer years too.
“Treating ageing used to be just an idea that was confronted with scepticism, [people would say] ‘you’re going make them live longer sick,'” Longo tells Business Insider. But he says that what they have seen with people with Laron syndrome is that lives don’t have to be crippled by chronic disease. In animals where researchers have activated these same biological pathways, the animals have lived longer, disease-free lives.
Activating the key
People with Laron syndrome differ from others with dwarfism in an important way: Their bodies still produce growth hormone. But their livers can’t process it to generate what’s really needed: something called insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1.
The lack of IGF-1 prevents growth and makes people with Laron syndrome much more sensitive to insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar. That better regulation of blood sugar is what researchers think prevents diabetes.
Cancer protection comes from the same thing that prevents growth. Cancer itself is a disease of growth, where the process of cell division goes out of control. People with agromegaly — that’s an excess of growth hormone (like André the Giant) — have an increased risk of cancer. Interestingly, they also have a higher risk of developing diabetes.
Longo’s work has focused on developing a diet that involves a five-day fast once a month every few months or so. During those five days, people consume a very limited amount of food with precisely calculated amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
So far, his research has shown that eating this way can lower IGF-1 levels in already healthy adults. Theoretically, this should decrease risks for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, though longer term studies are still being carried out to confirm these results. Other researchers who are also interested in the benefits of fasting are working on other ways to replicate different biological pathways that are activated when people don’t eat or eat less.
Longo’s research is based on an idea that healthy people should have normal levels of IGF-1 until they are fully grown. If levels tapered off after that, we could be healthier for longer, less susceptible to the illnesses of ageing.
He hopes that this research could help people with Laron syndrome as well, though in a different way. Most of the people whom he and other researchers have studied in Ecuador don’t suffer from cancer or diabetes, but they do have other issues. Many die or are injured in accidents. Dealing with their short stature has been hard for many of them, and so they have higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide.
Longo tells Business Insider that he hopes to raise enough money to provide IGF-1 to people with Laron syndrome who have yet to go through puberty. He’s previously estimated that doing so would cost about $2,000 per month per person.
“The idea,” Longo explains, “is to have a successful company based on the technology derived from the Larons,” which could provide the necessary funding.
“It’s going very slow,” he says. “We are, however, optimistic.”
For more on the Laron people, check out this video by Mosaic Science:
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