Research ArticleAging

Growth Hormone Receptor Deficiency Is Associated with a Major Reduction in Pro-Aging Signaling, Cancer, and Diabetes in Humans

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Science Translational Medicine  16 Feb 2011:
Vol. 3, Issue 70, pp. 70ra13
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3001845

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Clues to a Cancer- and Diabetes-Free Life

In the 1958 film Live Fast and Die Young, two reckless sisters threaten to burn out early. Similarly, one theory of aging predicts that a faster metabolism leads to a shorter life. Does this trade-off also apply to age-related disease? A new study by Guevara-Aguirre et al. offers clues that address this seminal question. The authors’ findings stem from studies of a unique group of Ecuadorian people who have a mutation in the growth hormone receptor (GHR) gene and a resulting insulin-like growth factor–1 (IGF-1) deficiency, which stunts their growth. These descendants of Spanish conversos, Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid the Inquisition, almost never get diabetes or cancer as a result, the authors postulate, of the privileged metabolic status that arises from their altered hormonal state. Relative to controls, these subjects show lower insulin concentrations and higher insulin sensitivity, and when stressed, their cells tend to self-destruct rather than accumulate mutations and DNA damage—all features that are known to promote cell protection in model organisms.

For 22 years, this group of 99 related Ecuadorians—most of whom are homozygous for an A-to-G splice site mutation at position 180 in exon 6 of the GHR gene—has been monitored extensively, so that their health details are well documented. From this reservoir of data, plus information about the diseases of family members as well as causes of death of those relatives who have died, the authors deciphered that the Ecuadorian subjects who carried the GHR mutation had an abnormally low incidence of cancer and diabetes. The group showed only one case of nonlethal cancer and no cases of diabetes, whereas the controls—unaffected relatives—developed cancer (17%) and diabetes (5%) at rates similar to those of the Ecuadorian population as a whole.

To illuminate the underlying reason for the subjects’ freedom from these diseases, the authors focused on the components carried in their blood. In experiments on cultured human epithelial cells, Guevara-Aguirre et al. found that low concentrations of one of these, IGF-1, was responsible for preventing oxidative DNA damage when the cells were exposed to the oxidizing agent H2O2 and for promoting cell death when stress-related DNA damage did occur, a checkpoint that averts cancer-promoting behavior by abnormal cells. Analysis of the participating cell signaling pathways identified activation of the transcription factor FoxO under conditions of low IGF-1 as a likely mediator of these effects. Further, the lower blood insulin concentrations and higher insulin sensitivity in these subjects likely account for the absence of diabetes in this population.

Although it is difficult to prove that alterations in IGF-1 amounts are responsible for the cancer- and diabetes-free lives of these Ecuadorian people, genetic work from several model organisms suggests that this is so. In yeast, mutations in genes that encode components of a growth-promoting pathway protect against age-dependent genomic instability, and mutations in the insulin/IGF-1–like signaling pathway increase life span and reduce abnormal cellular proliferation in worms. Mice with defects in GH and IGF-1 live exceptionally long lives, with delayed appearance of age-dependent mutations and cancer. The Ecuadorians do not live longer-than-normal lives compared with their compatriots, but rather die in due course from causes of death other than cancer and diabetes complications. Thus, the metabolic inverse of “live fast and die young”—a slowed metabolism yields a longer life—is not supported by the current findings. But a life free from two dreaded diseases may be considered a desirable trade-off.


  • * These authors contributed equally to this work.

  • Citation: J. Guevara-Aguirre, P. Balasubramanian, M. Guevara-Aguirre, M. Wei, F. Madia, C.-W. Cheng, D. Hwang, A. Martin-Montalvo, J. Saavedra, S. Ingles, R. de Cabo, P. Cohen, V. D. Longo, Growth Hormone Receptor Deficiency Is Associated with a Major Reduction in Pro-Aging Signaling, Cancer, and Diabetes in Humans. Sci. Transl. Med. 3, 70ra13 (2011).