Pythons Offer New Clues in Heart Disease

Leslie Leinwand, PhD, heads a research team at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that studies how python heart function could lead to new therapies for human heart disease. (Image: Thomas Cooper)

Pythons aren’t usually thought of as big-hearted creatures. But after a Burmese python feeds on a huge meal, its heart size swells and so does the quantity of fatty acids in its bloodstream. The process is a healthy one that scientists say could offer clues to help develop new treatments for human heart disease.

In today’s Science, a team led by researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder shows that a day after a big feast, pythons’ heart mass can grow by 40%, their triglyceride levels shoot up more than 50-fold, and their metabolism speeds up 40-fold. Their heart tissue has higher activity of superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme known to protect the heart. Researchers found no evidence of fat deposits in the snakes’ hearts.

Similar increases in heart mass, triglycerides, and metabolism occurred when researchers injected snakes that hadn’t fed recently with blood plasma from well-fed pythons or a fatty acid mixture they made to mimic the plasma. Results were the same in mice injected with the python plasma or the fatty acid mixture. Cultured rat heart cells also responded similarly.

“A combination of fatty acids can induce beneficial heart growth in living organisms,” said lead author and postdoctoral researcher Cecilia Riquelme, PhD, in a statement. The beneficial fatty acids identified in the study are myristic acid, palmitic acid, and palmitoleic acid.

In humans, heart muscle growth can be beneficial or harmful. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease in which thickened heart muscle impairs the organ’s ability to pump blood, is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. But vigorous exercise in healthy people can expand heart muscle and allow it to pump blood more efficiently.

“Now we are trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the process [in pythons] in hopes that the results might lead to new therapies to improve heart disease conditions in humans,” Riquelme said.

Categories: Cardiovascular System, Lipids and Lipid Disorders, Metabolism