Gigantism - BBC Radio 4 feature on the Irish giants

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Gigantism will play a part in a BBC Radio 4 documentary series which features five stories in which evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod follows a trail of clues beginning with a bone or skeleton and leading to a fascinating revelation.

The first will be shown on Monday 14th August at 1.45pm and explores gigantism.

In this episode, Ben will be exploring the link between an 18th century skeleton (Charles Byrne) in the Hunterian Museum and Brendan Holland in County Tyrone.

Holland reached a height of 6’10” was diagnosed with gigantism.

Ben follows a trail of clues and discovers how recent findings could mean that in the future there are no more Irish giants.  

Acromegaly and gigantism

Acromegaly is a hormonal disorder that results from too much Growth Hormone (GH) in the body.

The pituitary, a small gland situated behind the bridge of your nose and at the base of the brain, makes GH. Acromegaly is caused by a benign (non-cancerous) tumour of the pituitary gland, which is called an adenoma and this causes the pituitary to produce too much GH.

Acromegaly usually develops in adults between the ages of 30 and 50, but symptoms can appear at any age. Read more on acromegaly here.

If acromegaly develops before you have stopped growing (which usually occurs between the ages of 15 to 17) it can cause gigantism, where people are very tall, because GH promotes growth of legs and arms.

Today, we would recognise Byrne's gigantism as being caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland. 

The series outlines how endocrinologists had already come across a family with several affected members in their recent history who hailed from County Tyrone, the same part of Ireland as Byrne.

To find out if they were linked the team took a DNA sample from Byrne and found that Holland carried the same mutation. 

Scientists calculate that some 200 to 300 living people might be carrying this same mutation today.

This work makes it possible to trace carriers of this gene and treat patients before they grow to be a giant.

To listen back to the show after it's been broadcast, or to listen live, click here.