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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened 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.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid