Snake blood: The key to strengthening human hearts?

The hearts of Burmese pythons balloon in size when the snakes digest large prey. Now, scientists think snake blood may unlock treatments for heart disease

In order to keep up with the demands of swallowing their prey whole, pythons' hearts grow up to 40 percent during digestion.
(Image credit: CC BY: dtron)

We've all heard Charlie Sheen ramble on about tiger blood. But what about snake blood? According to new research published in the journal Science, the blood of Burmese pythons could be the key to a stronger heart for humans. Here's a guide to what scientists found:

Wait, why pythons?

The massive, slithery creatures are best known for swallowing their prey whole, up to the size of a pig or deer. What intrigued researchers was the way the python's metabolism "ratchets up 40-fold" when it digests a large animal, and its organs grow larger to keep pace. The snake's heart grows 40 percent larger over three days. Like an Olympic-caliber athlete, who can build a larger, more muscular heart with years of exercise, the python adds heart muscle to provide the extra oxygen its body needs to handle a big meal.

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What causes this biological phenomenon?

At first, the researchers thought a specific protein caused the animal's heart to grow. But it turned out that the secret was a special blend of fatty acids — myristic acid, palmitic acid, and palmitolic acid, in particular. According to Ed Yong at Discover, when the scientists "mixed up this cocktail and injected it into a fasting python, the snake's heart grew as if it had just eaten a big meal." The mixture had the same effect when tested on mice.

And this might work on humans?

Far more testing is needed, but in theory, yes. "Now we are trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the process," says researcher Cecilia Riquelme, "in hopes that the results might lead to new therapies to improve heart disease conditions in humans."

Sources: Discover, US News, USA Today

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