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Real-life Irish giants traced to 18th century street performer

Courtesy of Ronan McCloskey

Brendan Holland and Dr. Marta Korbonits view the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as "The Irish Giant." Holland, who is 6 feet 9 inches tall, is genetically related to Byrne. The 7-foot-7-inch 18th century street performer is the subject of the upcoming documentary to be shown on BBC2.

Cari Nierenberg writes: Brendan Holland recently got some huge news about his family medical tree.

Holland, who's in his late 50s and lives in Dungannon, Ireland, found out through his participation in a research study that he "was genetically related to the Irish Giant."

The Irish Giant, whose real name was Charles Byrne, came to London in 1782 from Northern Ireland to make a living off his towering height as a street show performer. Today, Byrne's 7-foot-7-inch skeleton is a medical marvel on display at The Royal College of Surgeons in London.

At 6 feet 9 inches, Holland had always been baffled by his extremely tall stature since both his parents and siblings were of average height.

When he was about 13, he started growing rapidly, about 2 inches a year, he recalled. “I was constantly tired, had tremendous headaches, and was developing tunnel vision."

Holland's doctor discovered he had a tumor on his pituitary gland that was causing his body to pump out too much growth hormone. After the tumor, a pituitary adenoma, was found and treated when he was 20, he stopped growing. 

Eventually, Holland learned he lives in an area of Northern Ireland that scientists consider a hot spot for pituitary adenomas.

In a study published in today's New England Journal of Medicine, scientists in the United Kingdom looked at four modern-day Northern Ireland families, including Holland’s, and noticed the same genetic mutation in these families as they found in the 18th-century Irish Giant.

Using DNA extracted from Charles Byrne's teeth, the researchers speculate that they could trace the roots of the Irish study participants and the Irish Giant's inherited gene mutation for gigantism to a common ancestor who lived an estimated 1425 to 1650 years earlier -- or 57 to 66 generations ago.

The findings have a additional meaning to Holland because he has two sons. "I know that my children or my grandchildren could be screened for this rogue gene and if they are sufferers (of familial isolated pituitary adenoma), they can be given early treatment.”

Dr. Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Barts and the London School of Medicine, who led the research team's efforts, hopes this new evidence can lead to a better understanding of pituitary adenomas. 

"These people are not weirdos or freaks, but just ordinary ill people, as anybody else who inherits an increased chance to get a disease from their parents, as many of us do with other diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes," explains Korbonits.

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