Brain and Body

DNA from These “Superhumans” Could Save Millions

September 25, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Blood analysis in a medical laboratory
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Drug companies are capitalizing on rare mutations that cause a few people around the world to be nearly immune to pain and broken bones.

Steven Pete and Timothy Dreyer are real-life superhumans. Steven Pete can put his hand on a burning stove without feeling a thing and, the last time he broke a bone, his wife noticed before he did. Timothy Dreyer, on the other hand, can walk away from car accidents and other mishaps unscathed.

These unusual abilities are the results of random mutations in their DNA. Pete has a rare condition, congenital analgesia, which makes him immune to pain. Only a few dozen other people in the world share this condition. Thanks to a different mutation (sclerosteosis), Timothy Dreyer’s bones are several times denser than the average human.

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It may seem like Pete and Dreyer are living worry-free lives with their rare conditions, but it’s actually the opposite. Pete’s left leg is permanently damaged from years of injuries he couldn’t feel, and he lives with anxiety that he could overlook a severe internal illness due to not being able to see or feel it. Dreyer has had to have multiple operations in his skull due to excessive bone growth that caused pressure on cranial nerves and the brain. Unfortunately, the surgeries were unable to prevent hearing loss.

So, these “superhuman” DNA conditions don’t exactly lead to the same lifestyle as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. But, just like our favorite superheroes, could Pete and Dreyer have the ability to save millions of lives?

The pharmaceutical company, Amgen, may have already found a promising cure for osteoporosis by studying the effects of Dreyer’s thick-bone mutation. Because of his condition, he’s missing a protein that inhibits how thick bones can grow. So, in order to reverse the effects, Amgen’s scientists created hundreds of antibodies until they found one that could block the inhibitory protein in patients with osteoporosis.

When the drug was tested on mice, the mice who were given the drug gained bone mineral density while the other mice lost it. The drug is now in the final stages of human trials and seems just as promising. Millions of people suffer from osteoporosis globally, and the light at the end of the tunnel could finally be here.

The painkiller industry is also pushing ahead with research into genetic irregularities like Pete’s. The market for painkillers alone generates a whopping $18 billion annually, but so far no pharmaceutical companies have created a drug for severe pain that isn’t addicting. Genentech hopes to make an entirely new class of painkillers but it could take more than five years of trials before a drug is released.

Pete and Dreyer know that the pharmaceutical companies won’t research treatments for their abnormal sufferings since there’s no profit motivation. There simply aren’t enough people in the world with their conditions for big businesses to find the incentive to put in the work, time, and money. However, both men and some of the others like them are still willing to help in the name of science. They understand their adverse conditions could create treatments for millions of suffering patients.

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