Snake oil to treat heart disease? Idea may not be so far-fetched

Doctors prescribing snake oil for their patients?  The scenario may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

A University of Colorado Boulder study has shown that huge amounts of fatty acids circulating in the bloodstreams of feeding pythons promote healthy heart growth. The team found the amount of triglycerides -- the main constituent of natural fats and oils -- in the blood of Burmese pythons one day after eating increased by more than fifty-fold, said CU-Boulder Professor Leslie Leinwand, who led the study.

Despite the massive amount of fatty acids in the python bloodstream, there was no evidence of fat deposition in the heart and there was an increase in the activity of a key enzyme known to protect the heart from damage. After identifying the chemical make-up of blood plasma in fed pythons, the team injected fasting pythons with either “fed python” plasma or a reconstituted fatty acid mixture developed to mimic such plasma. 

In both cases, the snakes showed increased heart growth and other indicators of cardiac health. The team took the experiments a step further by injecting mice with either fed python plasma or the fatty acid mixture, with the same positive results.

“We found that a combination of fatty acids can induce beneficial heart growth in living organisms,” said postdoctoral researcher Cecilia Riquelme. “Now we are trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the process, in hopes that the results might lead to new therapies to improve heart disease conditions in humans.”

Previous studies have shown that the hearts of Burmese pythons can grow in mass by 40 percent within 24 to 72 hours after a large meal, and that metabolism immediately after swallowing prey can shoot up by forty-fold. Adult Burmese pythons can swallow prey as large as deer and fast for up to a year with few ill effects.

There are good and bad types of heart growth, said Leinwand, a professor in the molecular, cellular and developmental biology department and chief scientific officer of CU’s Biofrontiers Institute. While cardiac diseases can cause human heart muscle to thicken and decrease the size of heart chambers and heart function because the organ is working harder to pump blood, heart enlargement from exercise is beneficial.

“Well-conditioned athletes have huge hearts,” said Leinwand. “But there are many people who are unable to exercise because of existing heart disease, so it would be nice to develop some kind of a treatment to promote the beneficial growth of heart cells.”

In the mouse experiments, not only did the hearts show significant growth in the major part of the heart that pumps blood, the heart muscle cell size increased, there was no increase in heart fibrosis -- which makes the heart muscle more stiff and can be a sign of disease -- and there were no alterations in the liver or in the skeletal muscles.

The new study grew out of an effort Leinwand initiated in 2006 called the Python Project, an undergraduate laboratory research program focusing on the heart biology of constricting snakes like pythons thought to have relevance to human disease. Undergraduates contributed substantially to the underpinnings of the new python study both by their genetic studies and by caring for the lab pythons, she said.