University of Colorado researchers look to pythons for clues to heart health

DENVER—Python blood may hold the road map to effective treatments for human heart disease, according to a new biomedical study by University of Colorado researchers.

Researchers at CU’s Biofrontiers Institute have discovered three key fatty acids in python blood that, when reproduced, have the same positive effect on mammal heart growth as that observed in pythons.

A day after a Burmese python feeds, the mass of the snake’s heart increases by 40 per cent and the triglycerides in its bloodstream grow 50 times beyond normal levels. Since triglycerides are the main component in natural fats and oils, this results in massive amounts of fatty acids circulating through the python’s bloodstream.

“Fats in blood is usually associated with bad things in humans,” lead researcher Leslie Leinwand said. “We wanted to find out how the python manages to not have something toxic happen to it.”

The researchers discovered no evidence that the fats in the python’s blood deposited in the reptile’s heart. In fact, they found an increase in activity of a key enzyme that protects the heart from damage.

The research team was able to identify the three key fatty acids that could be used to mimic the chemical makeup of a python’s post-feeding blood.

They injected one sample of lab mice with blood plasma taken from recently fed pythons and injected a different sample with a “mimicking’’ mixture of the three fatty acids. In both cases, the mice showed increased heart growth, as well as other indicators of heart health.

“What is surprising about this study is that we were able to transfer that activity into a mammalian heart,” said Leinwand.

There is good heart growth and bad heart growth. Good human-heart growth can come from physical exercise. For example, elite athletes Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong have huge hearts. Bad human-heart growth can come from chronic high blood pressure.

“Unfortunately, some people can’t exercise enough to achieve that good result,” Leinwand said.

The researchers’ next step is to test this fatty-acid combination in a mouse that has heart disease.

“The idea is that you could give it to a mouse before getting heart disease, while it might be developing it or after getting heart disease to see if it would prevent, slow down or decrease the disease,” said Leinwand, an expert in genetic heart diseases such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.

Pythons are not typical lab animals, but Leinwand hopes these findings will open researchers’ minds for further study on more types of animals.

“My biggest caution is to take what we’ve found and think it can be applied to humans,” Leinwand said. “That’s a big leap. A lot more has to be done before we can say that.”

The study, which took 5 ? years, appears in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. The research authors include a CU professor, two postdoctoral researchers, a graduate student and a CU undergraduate.

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