An area of Northern Ireland has been dubbed a ‘giant hotspot’ after it was discovered that a significant number of people carry a gene that can lead to gigantism.
In Mid-Ulster, one in 150 people carry the AIP gene (also known as the giant gene). That is a substantially higher proportion than Belfast (one in 1,000) and the rest of the UK (one in 2,000).
The giant gene can cause the body to produce too much growth hormone, leading to lifelong health problems to those it affects.
Over three quarters of people who carry the gene will not be effected by it, but for those that are it could even be life threatening.
Dr Steven Hunter, an endocrinologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, told the BBC: “It can present with tall stature and people growing excessively tall at a young age.
“It can also cause problems with growth of the hands and feet in older people and it’s associated with problems related to headache because of the growing tumour in the brain and affects eyesight as well.
“We’ve also seen people with other hormonal problems and infertility. It can be life-threatening, but in many cases it’s disfiguring.”
The excessive production of the growth hormone is a result of a non-cancerous tumour in the pituitary gland, which sits just below the brain.
The condition it causes is known as gigantism (or acromegaly) and can be treated with either brain surgery of medication.
In 1761, a man named Charles Byrne was born near Cookstown. Byrne carried the gene and it caused him to grow over 7ft 6in tall. He moved to London and found fame and fortune as the ‘Irish giant’. However, he died aged just 22 in 1783.
Around 15 families in Northern Ireland have been identified as carriers of the giant gene. Geneticists believes that they and Mr Byrne share a common ancestor who lived around 2,500 years go.
A distant relative of Mr Byrne, Brendan Holland, from Dungannon, is 6ft 9in. He said: “It may not please the romantic in some people, but those who are afflicted with this condition probably won’t object to the end of this condition.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve actually been cured and had the best treatment available.
“My mother passed the gene to me and she never knew that and many people still to this day are passing the gene on without knowing it.”
It can be easy to assume that growing so tall could have athletic advantages, making people bigger andstronger.
However, Prof Patrick Morrison, who is a Belfast clinical genetics consultant says that usually the opposite is true.
He said: “It’s a miserable life for a giant, actually. If you’re nearly 7ft (2.1m) in height your heart doesn’t work so well, you can have heart failure. Your pituitary gland can cause vision problems, you’re actually quite weak.
“Maybe by your mid to late 20s you’ve a lot of problems and a lot of these giants will die in their late 20s if not treated.”
Take a look at the BBC’s interview with Brendan Holland below.
Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcalling