Although its long been known that Burmese pythons can survive almost a year without eating, most people are unaware that whenever they do swallow their prey “their metabolism cranks up more than 40-fold, and their organs immediately start growing in size to get the digesting done.” In fact, their hearts alone increase more than 40% in size in within three days, according to molecular biologist Leslie Leinwand of the University of Colorado at Boulder whose research team reported their findings in today’s edition of the journal Science.
“It’s this amazing biology,” he said. “They’re not swelling up. They’re building (heart) muscle.”
They also found that the level of triglycerides in the snakes’ blood stream “grew more than 50 fold within 24 hours after eating, as well as increased activity of an enzyme known to protect the heart from damage,” a discovery that the scientists hope may lead to new ways to treat heart disease in humans.
“We found that a combination of fatty acids can induce beneficial heart growth in living organisms,” first author and postdoctoral researcher Cecilia Riquelme said in a university press release. “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.”
As part of the study (which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and a Boulder biotechnology company that Leinwand co-founded, Hiberna Corp., that aims to develop drugs based on extreme animal biology). Riquelme reportedly placed plasma from a fed python into a container holding rat heart cells and found that they also increased in size. She then injected it into live rodents and saw that it also made their hearts grow “in an apparently healthy way.”
The big question now is “whether that kind of growth could be spurred in a mammal with heart disease.” In addition, Leinwand and Riquelme are studying how the pythons’ hearts resume their original size so quickly once they have finished digesting their meals.
For more information about treating heart disease here in Connecticut,readers can contact the American Heart Association, 5 Brookside Dr., Wallingford, CT 06492-1822 203 294-0088.