Ecuador Credit: Minneapolis Star Tribune / MCT

In remote villages of Ecuador, scientists have found a population that may hold clues to fighting diabetes and cancer — people with a type of dwarfism who almost never get those diseases.

It turns out that a gene mutation that stunts their growth also may block cell changes that lead to these diseases of aging.

Researchers tracked the health of 99 Ecuadoreans with what’s called Laron syndrome. Most stand shorter than 4 feet because the gene mutation prevents their bodies from properly using growth hormone.

That alters the activity of other hormones, including insulin-like growth factor or IGF-1 — a substance that laboratory studies suggest might be manipulated to lengthen lifespan.

So scientists were interested in seeing how people with Laron syndrome fare.

Over 22 years, this population experienced no diabetes and only one non-lethal case of cancer, Ecuadorean endocrinologist Jaime Guevara-Aguirre and University of Southern California cell biologist Valter Longo reported. Their research appears in Wednesday’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The absence of diabetes was true even though the Laron population tends to be heavier than other Ecuadoreans, and being overweight raises the risk for diabetes.

In contrast, 1,600 of the group’s normal-height relatives who lived in the same towns experienced rates of those diseases typical of Ecuador — 5 percent got diabetes and 17 percent got cancer.

However, the Laron patients didn’t live longer than their taller relatives. Their main causes of death were accidents and alcohol-related illnesses, Longo said.

For their research, scientists mixed components from the Laron participants’ blood with human cells. Longo’s team found those components protected against types of cellular damage and altered some genes that laboratory studies have linked to life extension.

Next, Longo wants to test if there are safe ways to use medications that block growth hormone activity in ways that might protect against diseases of aging. But that research will take years.

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