Python_heart_web

Python fats build hearts

Your average Burmese python is a rather impressive individual. Adults can be as big in diameter as a telephone pole and more than eight metres long. They have been known to swallow prey as large as a deer and can go without eating for up to a year. While they may not make ideal dinner guests, recent research has shown that these serpentine fellows have something in their blood that could be very good for human hearts.

Researchers have found that one day after eating the amount of triglycerides in the blood of a Burmese python increases by around fifty times. Despite this massive amount of fatty acids being present, there is no evidence of fat being deposited in the heart and at the same time there is an increase in the activity of an enzyme that protects the heart from damage.

Previous research on Burmese pythons had shown that their hearts can increase in size by up to 40 per cent within one to three days after a large meal. Their metabolic rate can also increase by up to fourty times.

With all of this post-meal activity going on the researchers doing the latest study wanted to find out what it was in the python’s body that was having these effects on the snakes’ hearts.

In the end they found a complex mixture of fatty acids that seemed the likely culprits. To check, they gave low doses of this fatty acid mix to mice over the course of a week. They found that the mouse hearts showed significant growth in the part of the heart responsible for pumping blood and also the size of heart cells increased. There was no fibrosis (stiffening) of the heart which would be an indicator of heart disease.

It is worth noting that there is good heart growth and bad heart growth. Some heart disease can cause the heart to enlarge because it is having to work harder. On the other hand, heart enlargement from exercise is a good thing. The type of growth being caused by these python fatty acids is good growth.

The three key fatty acids in the fed python blood turned out to be myristic acid, palmitic acid, and palmitoleic acid. The enzyme that showed increased activity in the python hearts during feeding episodes, known as superoxide dismutase, is a well-known heart-protective enzyme in many organisms, including humans. The fact that the fatty acid combination had the same effect in mice as as pythons raises hopes that it might do the same in humans.

The big question to be answered now, is are the heart changes going to promote disease down the track, or are they beneficial like the changes resulting from exercise?

If it turns out that the changes are beneficial in the long run the python-fats might be a way to help people with existing heart disease return to exercise.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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