Gator doctor searches for cures in the Lowcountry

Dr. Lou Guillette straddles a gator and helps his team take measurements. (Dave MacQueen/WCIV)

By Dean

GEORGETOWN, S.C. (WCIV) -- A local doctor isn't talking to the animals, but he is learning something from them. His research could lead to cures for certain birth defects.

The Yawkey Wildlife Center, 20,000 acres of pristine land, is Dr. Lou Guillette's part-time office.

"This is stunning. Look out here. This is an amazing place," Guillette said looking out over an endless piece of property.

The MUSC doctor's research subjects -- Alligators.

"I am interested in the alligator, but I'm also interested in what the alligator can tell us," he said.

The way to find out more about the gator, he says it is to go right to the source.

"God what a beautiful animal," Guillette said as his team pulled in an eight-footer.

Once Dr. Lou and his band of alligator brothers safely secure the reptile it's time to go to work.

Dr. Guillette sits on the gator and explains,"As you've probably noticed the tail is probably the most dangerous part of the alligator."

The team draws blood.

"Blood samples will show us hormones and contaminate levels in the blood," Guillette said.

{}A urine sample is collected using a catheter purchased from a local veterinarian. It's no different than the ones used to collect samples from a dog or cat.

Measurements of the captured gator are then taken and the data is recorded.

It's hard to believe in such a perfect place contaminants would be present, but Dr. Guillette ensures us they are there.

"I mean there aren't people around. No industries, but there's still contaminates here," he said. "Contaminants come down the river and they come through airborne."

Those contaminants, combined with the gator's genetic make-up, recently helped the doctor uncover a possible link to a medical condition found in women.

"We've now found that alligators exposed to pesticides show an ovarian condition that which is very similar to what you see in humans in women who have polycystic ovary syndrome," Dr. Guillette said.

Once the gator is released is when Dr. Guillette gets down to the work that could one day change lives.

"How does the environment, contaminants and nutrition influence the genes and how do they lead to birth defects or leads to health?" -- that's the question Dr. Guillette attempts to answer.