More than 6 million people in the United States are estimated to live with Alzheimer's disease with no current treatment options.

That is why Tim Jarome, an associate professor in the newly formed School of Animal Sciences housed in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and other researchers are developing a pig model of Alzheimer's disease that is much more similar to humans than rodents in many ways.

While there are rodent models of the disease, the reality is that they don't replicate all of the symptoms of the disease itself, which is one reason all clinical trials for Alzheimer’s drugs have failed to date.

The research is funded by a $446,000, two-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

A pig’s brain structure, cardiovascular systems, and pulmonary, immune, and metabolic systems are more similar to a human's than rodents. Pigs also are very intelligent and can do very complicated behavioral tasks that rodents can't.

“One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is cognitive impairments and memory loss, so we need to study the complicated tasks that pigs can do,” Jarome said. “If we develop this model, the idea is that other researchers could use it in the U.S., and basically every state has at least one university that has the facilities to house pigs because it's an agricultural animal.”

The three-site collaboration involves pigs being raised at the University of Missouri-Columbia, behavioral testing at Florida International University, and brain mapping in Jarome’s lab at Virginia Tech.

The researchers’ idea is to develop a model that could potentially lead to ways to develop new treatments so the researchers can give clinically relevant dosages of drugs to a pig. If the models are accurately predicting Alzheimer's disease, then cell death will be seen in specific regions of the brain as well as the development of amyloid plaques.

“If we can develop a treatment, we could actually test a human-relevant dosage in a pig to see if it'll work,” Jarome said. “The idea is that we could potentially treat Alzheimer's disease, which not just helps the individual, but also takes that financial and care burden off of those you know and family members that are taking care of that individual.”

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