On an island off Georgia, wild hogs developed many traits of human couch potatoes. Scientists are excited.
By Lawrence A. Armour

(FORTUNE Magazine) – OUR STORY BEGINS LIKE A made-for-TV movie--scientists swoop in and make a daring, against-all-odds rescue from a desolate island off the coast of Georgia--and it just gets better. Instead of finding their freedom on the mainland, the island's inhabitants are tossed into steel-and-concrete cages where white-coated technicians poke and prod, take tissue samples, and have their way with the ladies. There's bloodletting, even incest.

All this drama concerns a bunch of pigs--descendants of a small herd of Iberian swine that Spaniards brought to Ossabaw Island more than 500 years ago. The hearty ones survived in the wild, pigging out during the warm months on acorns, clams, and sea turtle eggs, and then, during the harsh winters, living off the fat that had built up around their bellies. Along the way they developed long snouts that enabled them to root around for food. They also developed diabetes, high blood pressure, and other ailments similar to ones that humans get.

All pigs are like people--physiologically, that is--but the Ossabaw pigs are special: They're like modern people. That's because the adaptation that let them survive--the ability to pig out--made them candidates for many of the diseases of a sedentary human society. "Their coronary circulation system is almost indistinguishable from ours," says Michael Sturek, professor of cellular and integrative physiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "Their metabolism is similar to ours, which means they process foods the way we do. They're omnivorous, which means they'll eat anything. Their blood lipids are similar to ours. And they're the size of humans, which makes them ideal for testing things like coronary stents and angioplasty techniques."

That's just for openers. Michael Spurlock, a Purdue University professor who spends the bulk of his time studying what's known as metabolic syndrome--a pre-diabetic condition characterized by obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and glucose intolerance--likes the way the Ossabaws behave in his lab. He and other members of a joint Purdue/Indiana University team are convinced that Ossabaws are the perfect laboratory stand-ins for humans. They believe the pigs hold the key to understanding obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and dozens of other diseases.

To make sure we have an ample supply of pigs, Spurlock is helping to create a breeding center at Purdue that will produce 400 Ossabaws a year. And here's something else to chew on. Food experts the world over will tell you that the drive to create lean, fat-free pigs has bred the flavor out of pork. A few of the experts have tasted Ossabaw pigs. They like them. A lot.

All this potential nearly went down the tubes in the fall of 2001, when the state of Georgia, concerned about the outlook for its loggerhead turtles, hired a man with a rifle and told him to rid Ossabaw Island of pigs. Not so fast, said Sturek, who had read about the Ossabaws in a scientific journal. He organized an expedition that rounded up and trapped 97 pigs--an experience, Sturek now proudly says, that gave him the ability to add "pig wrestler" to his CV. The Ossabaws had to report for work in disease-free condition, which meant lots of testing (stick out your tongue, cough). Only 26 made the cut.

Since then the National Institutes of Health has been putting $1 million or so a year into Sturek's part of the Ossabaw project. The American Diabetes Association, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer have underwritten other pieces of the operation. Spurlock, who joined the team in 2003, has gotten U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for his work at Purdue. And the state of Indiana, which likes it when the kids at its two major universities play well together, came up with $2 million.

Sturek does his work in a facility on the Indiana campus that houses six to nine pigs. It's got a bright-red treadmill (swiped from a Shetland pony ranch) on which the Ossabaws work out. It's also got a Pigmobile--a new Ford pickup with a climate-controlled trailer--that makes the 70-mile trip from the breeding grounds in West Lafayette to the labs in Indianapolis.

Spurlock oversees the 70 Ossabaws in residence at the animal house at Purdue. Everyone's favorite is Georgia, a 2½-year-old sow who is due to give birth on May 13. I ask for a one-on-one with Georgia and discover she is indeed sweet and likes to be petted. Most male Ossabaws are nasty, and Oedipus, Georgia's son from an earlier litter and the father of the brood she's currently carrying, is no exception.

I ask David Shaw, Indiana University's swine resource supervisor, how Oedipus feels about his relations with Mom. "He's just doing his job," Shaw says.

The Ossabaws are encouraged to eat all they want, and they do. A control batch gets a balanced diet containing fiber, carbohydrates, and protein, and most pack on weight. The other guys, whose diet is laced with high-density trans fats, become obese in no time at all.

Which is exactly what Sturek, Spurlock, and associates want. "Some Ossabaws that were on a high-fat diet doubled their body fat in nine weeks," says Sturek. "They have all the properties of the metabolic syndrome--obesity, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance--plus they get cardiovascular disease." Based on data from earlier studies, Sturek is convinced that 30 minutes on the treadmill, four days a week, will do wonders to reduce their weight and the plaque that leads to thick, hard arteries.

"We're just getting going," says Sturek. "If you want me to blue-sky, five years from now our comparative medicine department will be studying a pig a day, and we'll be able to determine, say, which type of new stent helps prevent certain diseases in coronary arteries. Ten years from now we'll have lots of clues that will lead us toward preventing the majority of cardiovascular diseases. We're also hoping the Ossabaws will provide insights in the use of pancreatic transplants to treat diabetics."

One of Spurlock's major interests is stem cells derived from fat. Because Georgia's offspring will be genetically similar due to inbreeding, their responses to different stem-cell treatments may provide clues about effectively dealing with things like diabetes and heart disease.

"Five years out," Spurlock says, "we will have completed a lot of experiments. We will have the first comparative gene expression profile in lean and obese Ossabaws, and will be able to relate what we find to diagnostic protein signatures in the serum. We will have a lot of information that will point us in directions future research should take. And we will have funding that will enable us to become a pig resource center that can produce and distribute animals to other centers."

Some people are hoping one or two of those Ossabaws make it to the dinner table, but that's another story.

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