Australian scientists have made a breakthrough in their attempt to emulate the cancer immunity of Ecuadorian dwarfs.

Australian scientists have found a way to control cell growth, leading to a hormone-free method of farming giant lobsters and even possible cancer cures.

The discovery is based on the knowledge that a group of dwarfs in Ecuador is immune to cancer and diabetes.

This is because their cells lack a receptor necessary for a growth hormone to enter.

“People without the receptor don’t die from cancer or diabetes,” says research leader Professor Mike Waters of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Twenty-seven years ago, he worked with the biotechnology company Genentech to clone the receptor.

Since then, Prof Waters has been trying to understand how it works, and how to switch it on and off, and on Friday he and his team published an article in the journal Science explaining the process.

“We have discovered how growth hormone works at the molecular level,” he says.

“This means we can control the processes of growth. We can stop them. We can start them.”

It’s taken 45 years so far, but the research could lead to a drug that stunts the spread of many forms of cancer.

A by-product of the work is a potential hormone-free improvement to fish farming: “We can put the active receptor into fish or lobster or prawns.”

If the receptor is left in the “on” position, the seafood will grow bigger faster.

This is experimental work and has not yet been used commercially or on land animals.

In medicine, it could be possible to emulate the cancer immunity of the dwarfs, known as Laron dwarfs. This could be done by developing a drug to switch the growth receptor off or remove it completely.

That could stop the cancer growing and spreading, or kill it.

The main advantage could be a new class of fine-tuned treatments with limited side effects, study co-leader Dr Andrew Brooks says.

The discovery could have implications for other conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, blood disorders, osteoporosis and obesity.

Being published in Science is an honour in its own right, he says.

“It’s one of the top journals in our field, along with Nature and Cell.

“It’s difficult to get in there. It has to be very prestigious work. It has to offer a major change in the way something is understood.”