Snake organ swelling could be key to cure heart disease

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In the current issue of Science magazine, researchers have found that pythons expand the size of their hearts while eating by enlarging their existing cells instead of creating new ones, along with a secondary finding that there are a specific three fatty acids that lead to the enlargement of the heart and other organs. The one organ that does not enlarge inside of a python, they report, is the brain, which is most likely due to the fact that it is restricted by the skull.

Studying the way that python organs enlarge, they say, can help them study, treat and possibly reverse various human diseases that are killing human beings. Other reptiles have been used by various pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs to treat human diseases. For instance, Byetta, a diabetes drug, is made from a hormone that is found in the saliva of a Gila monster. So using animals’ various traits to treat human diseases is not a new idea, though using this particular information from a python is new.

Leslie A Leinwand , a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor at the University of Colorado and a senior member of the research team, said finding ways to stop heart failure is the key goal of the research team, though other goals include stopping the deaths of young atheletes because of swelling and reversing high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Finding ways to treat and deal with obesity are also goals of the researchers who are studying the pythons, said Leinwand.

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What happens in the python is that after it eats, all of its organs swell to several times their normal size. The python’s blood is extremely full of triglycerides, a milky looking form of cholesterol that is harmful to humans, that they immediately burn off because their metabolism is so high.

"The python heart is able to burn these fats as fuel very, very efficiently, without any harm to it," Leinwand told LiveScience.

Leinwand turned to the research because she read an article many years ago about how pythons are able to fast for months with no apparent ill-effects and then gorge on a giant meal. After the meal, their organs swell, and then within days, they return to the normal size and they’re back to fasting. Because the python’s heart grows extremely large with no bad effects, Leinwand thought studying the python might be a way to help humans.

In athletic humans, the heart grows larger, but so do the chambers that pump the blood. In humans with heart disease, the heart grows larger but the chambers stay small. Leinwand thought if she found the key to healthy heart growth in the python, she could help humans with heart disease.

"It's very well known from decades of work that exercise is good for your heart," she said. "But a lot of times, people who have heart disease can't exercise enough to get that benefit."

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