Ossabaw pigs quickly become obsese and develop the same lifestyle diseases as humans. Photo: Ketzirah Lesser/Art Drauglis.

10 fat American pigs to DTU Risø Campus

Wednesday 27 Dec 17
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by Tom Nervil

Contact

Peter Mikael Helweg Heegaard
Professor
DTU Bioengineering
+45 35 88 62 41

Behind the pilot project

Head of Department Professor Peter Heegaard, veterinarian Kristian Møller, Head of Department Jørgen Schøller, Head of Life Science and Bioengineering Innovation Thomas Kledal, and Consultant Henrik Faarup are behind the business plan to establish a European Ossabaw facility.

Senior Adviser and Veterinarian Loise Lohse, Assistant Animal Technician Heidi Lehman, and Construction Engineer Christian Henriksen are involved in the practical task of bringing the pigs to Denmark.

The Otto Mønsted Fond has supported the project with a stay for visiting professor Mike Sturek from Indiana University in order to establish the breeding facility at DTU.

Over 47 per cent of adult Danes are overweight and more than 320,000 have diabetes. A fat American pig is the means towards better treatment.

February will mark the arrival of ten new residents at Risø Campus. They will be housed in a pavilion where they will grow fat, reproduce, and provide the basis for new knowledge on obesity.

The residents are none other than Ossabaw pigs—and to discover why precisely these pigs are interesting for DTU—we need to wind back the clock 500 years.

Transported to America along with the Spanish explorers in the 1400s, Iberian pigs were taken to Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia. Here, they have lived isolated from the outside world, as it is not possible to swim to to the mainland.

Only the hardiest pigs were able to survive and reproduce. Ossabaw Island has ample amounts of food during the summer months, but little to sustain life during the winter. The pigs therefore had to be exceptionally good at storing nourishment for the long winter period.

The pigs will quickly put on weight when they have unlimited access to food all year round and develop the same illness symptoms as people suffering from severe obesity. For example, they suffer from early stage arteriosclerosis, elevated blood pressure, a build-up of fat around their internal organs, and develop moderate insulin resistance (early type 2 diabetes).

“Their high similarity to humans makes the Ossabaw pig an ideal model for studying human obesity and diabetes—much better than mice, rats, and ordinary pigs,” explains Professor Peter M. H. Heegaard from DTU Vet, who for several years has collaborated with a research group at Indiana University in the USA. Here, the researchers operate the only facility in the world with Ossabaw pigs. The turn has now come to DTU, which will establish its own breeding group—the first of its kind in Europe.

50 in six months
The new facility at Risø will receive two boars that will mate with six sows. The facility will also receive two pigs that can be used immediately for research purposes. The first six months may produce as many as 40-50 pigs, as a sow carries her unborn young for three months, three weeks and three days—and minipigs give birth to three or four pigs at a time.

"Their high similarity to humans makes the Ossabaw pig an ideal model for studying human obesity and diabetes."
Professor Peter M. H. Heegard

Photo: DTU

The Ossabaw pigs, which will be used for biomedical research in Denmark and Europe, are expected to provide a valuable supplement to the Göttingen minipig—a breed used by researchers the world over and one that is also bred in Denmark.

“We believe that especially as a model for human obesity and its consequences, the Ossabaw pig will probably be even better suited than its Göttingen counterpart,” says Peter M. H. Heegaard.

“It is an excellent test subject for signs of metabolic syndrome—i.e. disruptions to the body’s normal conversion of nutrients—e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and arteriosclerosis. We can also check for biomarkers—i.e. signs of precursors of the above-mentioned diseases—and whether a given treatment may provide the solution. Thus the pigs can help to promote the development of health technology, personal medicine, and healthy foods—among other things. The individual applications can support and reinforce one another.”

Attracting companies
Internally at DTU, the project will provide the basis for teaching and research institutions such as DTU Bioinformatics, DTU Bioengineering, DTU Nanotech, DTU Electrical Engineering, DTU Fotonik, DTU Compute, and DTU Food.

However, Peter Heegaard also hopes to attract companies such as Novo Nordisk, Zealand Pharma, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Novartis, ALK-Abello, Lundbeck, Gubra—and several biotech start-ups.

Over the next 18 months, the facility will be established as a pilot project which will clarify the sustainability of the idea of overweight pigs at Risø.