Sarah Netter/ ABC News(BALSAS, Ecuado) — Yolanda Campoverde stands just 3 feet tall.
She lives in a modest home along a dusty road in the tiny town of Balsas, Ecuador, and she may hold the key to saving millions of lives.
Campoverde, 63, was born with a rare form of dwarfism known as Laron syndrome, a genetic mutation that also prevents cancer and diabetes.
Members of the Laron community are a kind of medical wonder to the doctors who have been studying them.
For more than two decades, endocrinologist Jaime Guevara-Aguirre has been traveling to this remote part of the country to study the people there with the Laron mutation.
The isolation makes the Laron syndrome so prevalent in the community. There are generations of intermarried family members.
When ABC News visited in 2008, Guevara-Aguirre was in Ecuador and Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology and biological sciences, was in California working together to simulate the same genetic condition in mice.
Now, they believe they are close to developing a pill that would mimic Laron syndrome in healthy adults to prevent cancer and diabetes.
The pill, given to a fully grown adult, would prevent a patient’s growth hormone — which not only makes people tall, but also fuels the growth of cancer cells — from binding to growth hormone receptors.
Doctors hope this will not only significantly reduce the onset of cancer, but help the body kill cancer cells when they form.
This is what naturally happens in little people like Campoverde. The gene is passed down by two parents who are carriers of the mutation.
Campoverde’s parents were both average height. She was picked on often as a child, but learned to hold her head high. She is proud to know that she could hold the key to preventing cancer and diabetes.
“It will make me so happy,” she said in Spanish. “God, I wish all that would go away, because those two diseases are the most terrible.”
“If we could help,” she said, “that would be amazing.”
Campoverde is already helping though.
The remote mountains of southern Ecuador, just a short drive from the Peruvian border, are home to a large cluster of dwarfs with Laron syndrome. Only about 300 people have been identified with the syndrome worldwide and more than one-third of them live in these villages.
Maria Jose, 13, was also born with Laron syndrome. She lives in the town of Pinas and is a typical teenage girl who has dreams of being a doctor.
Like the others, Maria Jose continues to offer herself up for research.
“If my daughter can help save other people,” her mother said, “then we’ll do it…with pleasure.”
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