National Geographic : 2013 May
36 national geographic • may 2013 36 of people to gain increased insight into the maladies of old age and how they might be avoided. In Calabria, Ecuador, Hawaii, and even in the Bronx, studies are turning up molecules and chemical pathways that may ultimately help everyone reach an advanced age in good, even vibrant, health. The quest for genetic answers has brought international scientific atten- tion to people like Nicolas Añazco, known as “Pajarito,” Little Bird in Spanish. In many ways Little Bird is a typical teen. He plays computer games and soccer and has been known to sneak a glance at the pinup calendar that resides beside a framed picture of the Last Supper on the dining room wall of his family’s four-room home in the rural uplands of Ecua- dor’s El Oro Province. In this steep and rug- ged, yet oddly lush, landscape at the foot of the Andes—with a hint of Shangri-La in its exotic mix of bananas, cauliflower, and tamarillo—the young man helps his father process the sugar- cane that surrounds the house. Little Bird, 17, said he became grudgingly aware of the reason for his nickname at age six, when he looked around at his classmates: “I real- ized that I was going to be smaller than them.” Much smaller. Because of a recessive mutation in a single gene, Little Bird looks like an eight-year-old and is three feet nine inches tall—much shorter than his brother Ricardo, who is a year older. The mutation causes a disease of impaired growth called Laron syndrome. But it may also protect Little Bird from serious diseases that typically ravage humans as they age. And even in this area of geographical isolation and historical poverty, word of that has gotten around. One afternoon Little Bird and three other Laron syndrome men from the region held court for an interview at the back of an appliance store, their feet dangling in child’s-size shoes from their chairs. Freddy Salazar, 39 years old and three feet ten inches tall, had recently had his 1997 Chevy Forsa retrofitted with elevated pedals and a raised seat so he could see through the windshield to negotiate his town’s steep hills. Victor Rivera, 23 years old and slightly taller than Salazar, was the subject of a famous photograph, shown at many scientific meetings, taken when he was four—so small that the ear of corn he was holding was a little larger than his arm. Luis Sanchez, at 43 an elder statesman among the group, threw back his head in laughter, which was joined by the others’ high-pitched voices, when someone asked if they were aware of the latest scientific reports about their condition. “We are laughing,” he explained, “because we know we are immune to cancer and diabetes.” That somewhat overstates the scientific results to date but reflects a growing interest among researchers to interrogate the genomes of un- usually healthy or long-lived groups of people, whose isolation, geographical or cultural, makes it easier to find genetic clues to longevity, disease resistance, and good health at an advanced age. One such scientist is Little Bird’s physician, Jaime Guevara, who was born in El Oro Prov- ince. Fascinated by the region’s “little people,” as they have been known since before their condi- tion even had a name, he began to study them around 1987, and during a quarter century of epidemiological sleuthing he identified about a hundred people with the Laron mutation sprinkled through the hills of southern Ecuador. Meche Romero Robles, a 40-year-old single mother, is also one of Guevara’s patients. Just over four feet tall, Robles lives with her teen- age daughter, Samantha, in a cinder-block, metal-roofed home perched on a hillside in the town of Piñas. “Look at her!” Guevara cried, giving the elder Robles an affectionate hug. “She should have diabetes. Given her body mass index, she must have diabetes. But she doesn’t.” Even to a nonmedical eye, Meche appeared obese. Like so many little people, however, she remained free of diabetes. “I real- ized this in 1994,” Guevara said, “but no one would believe me.” Science writer Stephen S. Hall’s six books include Merchants of Immortality. For our March 2012 issue, Fritz Hoffmann photographed glacial rocks.