A Dungannon man has found himself at the centre of media attention after appearing on BBC Breakfast to warn that Mid Ulster is a ‘hotspot’ for a genetic defect that produces giants.
Brendan Holland, who developed gigantism as a teenager, said his phone has been red hot since the TV interview was aired this morning (Wednesday), prompting a series of further broadcasts on the BBC’s World Service, Radio Wales and BBC Radio 5 Live.
He also gave an in-depth interview for BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science during which it was revealed that Mid-Ulster is a ‘hotspot’ for the gene and will appear on BBC Newsline this evening.
However, Brendan, who is a distant relative of the legendary Irish giant Charles Byrne, said his new-found media role was not driven by a desire for celebrity or love of showbiz.
“I don’t get overexcited about these appearances and I’m not a showy person by any means”, he said. “To me, TV and radio are just mediums, a way of getting the message across, which is a vital public health issue.
“I want to connect with as many audiences as possible to reach those people who have the condition and who are not diagnosed. The condition is very treatable, and people can be cured of the worst symptoms.”
Brendan, who is 6ft 9in, said that one in 150 people in Mid-Ulster have been found to carry the gene, compared to one in 1,000 in Belfast and one in 2,000 in the rest of the UK.
More than three-quarters of carriers will never develop health issues, but it can cause long-term problems and be potentially life-threatening for those that do.
Scientists hope to find and treat those at risk of passing on the gene.
The gene - called AIP, but known as the “giant gene” - can result in too much growth hormone, which is produced and released by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland just below the brain.
The excessive production occurs as the result of a non-cancerous tumour in the gland.
The condition, called acromegaly or gigantism, can be successfully treated with brain surgery and medication.
The gene caused Charles Byrne, born in 1761 near Cookstown and known as the “Irish giant”, to grow more than 7ft 6in (2.3m) tall.
He became an object of curiosity after travelling to London to seek his fortune before his death in 1783.
Geneticists have identified that Mr Byrne and the living carriers of the gene shared a common ancestor who lived about 2,500 years ago.
In a bid to stamp out the condition, Brendan urged those who suspect they might have the gene to seek medical help.
“This gene can lie dormant for generations in families and then strike out-of-the-blue”, he warned. “I know of no immediate ancestors who had the condition, but it has reared its head in my generation, and in the next generation. I have a niece and a distant cousin who suffered from the condition.
“Screening is vital and anyone who suspects they are carrying the gene should present themselves to their GP and ask for the test. It’s very simple and effective, and thanks to all this publicity, most GPs are now aware of the screening process.
“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.”
The research into the population screening in Mid Ulster was led by Marta Korbonits, professor of endocrinology at Barts and the London School of Medicine Queen Mary.
Prof Korbonits discovered the genetic link for the mutation of the Irish giant gene.
The scientists hope that their work will help to identify those at risk of passing on the gene to future generations and will lead to earlier diagnosis.