News / Health

Pythons Unlock Human Heart Health Secrets

Three fatty acids in snake's blood eyed for possible heart drug

Multimedia

Audio
Shelley Schlender

Studying snakes might seem like an unlikely way to help people with heart disease, but a python’s remarkable ability to quickly enlarge its heart during digestion has Colorado medical researchers looking toward surprising new therapies to treat human heart conditions.

Young Burmese pythons coil in plastic boxes at a science lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Each one is well over a meter long, but they can grow to seven meters.  

The snakes' “extreme” physiology is why molecular biologist Leslie Leinwand studies them. For instance, she says, even a big python never needs a mid-day dinner or even a weekly meal.

“They can go for months and months without eating anything, and nothing terrible happens to them.”   

When these giant serpents do finally show up for supper, they prefer rats, pigs or even a deer. And, unlike people, pythons never nibble. They swallow their prey whole, in one gulp. After that, Leinwand says, things get even stranger.

“Right after they eat a meal, the bulk of their organs in the body get bigger.”  

To speed digestion after that monstrous meal, the python’s heart also gets bigger - 40 percent larger than normal - and it can take two weeks for a python to finish digesting its dinner. After that, the heart and digestive organs gradually return to their normal size.

Dramatic changes

The key to this unusual process appears to be the python’s blood. When scientists filter out the red blood cells of a resting python, the remaining plasma is clear, like human plasma. However, python plasma changes dramatically during the first days of digestion.

“Their blood is actually milky white, and that milkiness, what’s making it white, is actually the fat in the blood,” CU student Ryan Doptis explains.

That fat gives the python energy to digest its meal, says Leinwand, just as blood fats fuel our bodies. However, she says, the strange, milky blood coursing through a python’s body during the digestion process contains 50 times more fat than normal. In people, high blood fat can increase the risk of heart attack, but that's not the case for these snakes.

“In the python, it isn’t toxic at all. What happens is the pythons have evolved a way of burning that fat, that’s in the blood, very efficiently and without harmful byproducts," says Leinwand. "There’s what we would call cardio-protection or heart protection that the python has.”

Heart protection

She adds that people, too, sometimes need cardio-protection. When someone suffers from high blood pressure or has a heart attack, heart cells can die. Over time, the weakened heart may grow flabbier in a way that increases damage. While exercise can strengthen some hearts, Leinwand warns it’s not for everyone.

“Some people with such severe heart disease can’t exercise enough to get that benefit, so our idea is that we could use what we’ve learned in the python perhaps to treat heart disease.”  

According to Leinwand, when the python’s heart grows to help the snake digest its meal, it’s doing something that also happens, to a much lesser extent, to a human athlete’s heart. Each individual heart cell is getting larger and stronger.

Impact on mammals

Post-graduate student, lead researcher Cecilia Riquelme, wondered if the fatty snake blood could produce similar changes to a mammal’s heart. So she followed a hunch.

“There has to be a factor in the blood that was inducing all the organs to grow in a concerted manner. So how can we prove that?" Riquelme says. "I decided maybe I can just try the python blood on cardiac cells in the laboratory.”  

So Riquelme bathed heart cells from a rat in python plasma. The cells grew bigger and stronger.

The results, published online in Science, astonished Leinwand. “That was the first eureka moment of this project.  Because, it still would be of academic interest if this was something specific to snakes. But when she showed that you could promote this type of cellular growth in the heart cells of a mammal, that motivated us to really push on this project.”

Heart drug for humans?

The researchers zeroed in on three key fatty acids in the python’s milky blood, fats which are also found in foods such as coconut oil, animal fat and butter.  

“So it’s myristic, palmitic and palmitoleic," Leinwand says. "I want to emphasize it needs to be those three and in a particular combination that’s found in the python.”

These fatty acids are only a fraction of the many fats in a python’s blood. Still, in the right proportions, even small amounts of them have proven powerful at strengthening the heart of a healthy, live mouse.

If further testing shows that these fatty acids can also strengthen a sick mammalian heart - possibly a diseased human heart, Leinwand envisions a new drug for treating heart disease.

“Those three fatty acids would be the drug,” she says.

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israeli
X
Carolyn Presutti
July 23, 2014 1:21 AM
The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video US Carriers Suspend Travel to Israel

The United States is prohibiting American carriers from flying to Israel's airport in Tel Aviv for 24 hours, because of rising violence between Israel and Hamas militants. The action was announced on Tuesday, after a rocket fired by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip landed near the airport. As VOA's Carolyn Presutti tells us, international officials soon may have to determine which combat zones are too dangerous for commercial flights.
Video

Video NASA Focuses on Earth-Like Planets

For decades, looking for life elsewhere in the universe meant listening for signals that could be from distant civilizations. But recent breakthroughs in space technology refocused some of that effort toward finding planets that may harbor life, even in its primitive form. VOA’s George Putic reports on a recent panel discussion at NASA’s headquarters, in Washington.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video US Awards Medal of Honor for Heroics in Bloodiest of Afghan Battles

U.S. combat troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, on pace to leave the country by the end of this year. But on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama took time to honor a soldier whose actions while under fire in Afghanistan earned him the Medal of Honor. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.

AppleAndroid