HBO Documentary Shines Spotlight on World's Most Famous Case of Acromegaly: Andre the Giant

APRIL 10, 2018
Mathew Shanley
By the time he died at age 46, André René Rousimoff had already stolen the show in a laundry list of blockbuster movies and completed a professional wrestling career that would leave many considering him the greatest sports entertainer of all time.

It was in 1970, though, that life changed for the man known as André the Giant.

Tonight, HBO Sports will air a documentary, André the Giant, that examines the life and work history of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Famer. Unbeknownst to many, his size was the result of gigantism, a disease caused by excess growth hormone (GH). The condition led to his eventual diagnosis with acromegaly, a rare endocrine disorder.

Acromegaly is primarily caused by the production of an excess of GH in the pituitary gland. While most patients are middle-aged adults, individuals can begin to present at any age. For André, diagnosis came when he was in his mid-20s and wrestling professionally in Japan.

Despite his suffering from the rare disease, André continued traveling from continent-to-continent, wrestling wherever he could earn a paycheck. He moved from Montreal, Canada to Baghdad, to New York, where he finally debuted in the organization now known as WWE. There, he became a celebrity thanks in part to his on-screen rivalry with the legendary Hulk Hogan.

It wasn’t until 1986, almost immediately after Wrestlemania 2, that André finally had to take a leave of absence to tend to the effects that acromegaly was having on his body.

The most common symptoms for patients with the hormonal disorder include abnormal growth and swelling of the hands and feet. Changes in a patient’s bones can alter facial features and cause further conditions like arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Results from a study published in the European Journal of Endocrinology in April 2015 claimed that “the disfiguring changes (acromegaly) causes can have a lasting psychological impact on patients.”

Benign tumors on the pituitary, or adenomas, can begin to develop, and bodily organs can expand rapidly in acromegaly patients, too. For Andre, who was already billed at 7’4”, these new changes in size came with consequences.

To deal with his increasing symptoms, André became dependent on both drugs and alcohol. Proper management of his symptoms was nearly impossible because of his rapidly growing stature. An urban legend surrounding a surgery he had in 1987 claims that his size made it impossible for an anesthesiologist to estimate a dosage via standard methods; subsequently, his alcohol tolerance was used as a guideline instead.

By 1990, André’s increasingly failing health limited his appearances on WWE programming. In December 1992, he performed for the last time. On January 27, 1993, he died of congestive heart failure while he slept in a hotel room in Paris, France.

By the time of his death, André wore a size 24 shoe and weighed 555 pounds.

At present, treatment for acromegaly typically includes hormones, radiotherapy, and surgery. When left untreated; however, it can result in serious illness and premature death, as it did for the man nicknamed “The 8th Wonder of the World.” There are currently four therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for patients in this indication: Octreotide (Sandostatin LAR) and Pasireotide (Signifor), both manufactured by Novartis; Lanreotide (Somatuline Depot injection), manufactured by Ipsen; and Pegvisomant (Somavert), manufactured by Pfizer.

In the video below, Maria Fleseriu, MD, Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University describes the pathophysiology of acromegaly and how it is currently managed.



For more on acromegaly and other rare diseases, or other patient stories from the rare disease community, follow Rare Disease Report on Facebook and Twitter.

The trailer for HBO’s André the Giant is below:



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