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

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More