Snake Oil: From Quack Medicine to Cure for Cardiac Disease

Burmese Pythons and a Solution to Heart Failure

Eric’s options were bleak. His doctor told him he was suffering from a form of heart failure called dilated cardiomyopathy (DC). Mutations in his heart muscle cells had caused his left ventricle, the main pumping chamber of his heart, to enlarge and weaken. This was why he had gained thirty pounds in the last year, why he often felt worrisome pains in his chest, and why he was often too fatigued to get off the couch (“Dilated Cardiomyopathy”, 2014). Eric’s doctor had discussed ways to alleviate his symptoms other than with medication: avoiding alcohol, managing stress, and exercising regularly. But Eric had never been a drinker, he had retired some time ago from a job he loved, and his recent heart troubles had left him too weak to get the exercise he once relished.

[“Heart Failure Signs and Symptoms” by National Institute of Health. License: Public Domain]

Eric’s situation is not uncommon; thousands of Americans suffer from heart disease. But luckily for them, there might soon be a cure.

Amid the sandstone-walled, red-roofed buildings of the University of Colorado at Boulder sits the Biofrontier Institute, the site of cutting-edge cardiac biology research and second home to Dr. Leslie Leinwand. In 2005, a research team, including Dr. Leinwand, set out to determine what happens to the human heart when it enlarges in different situations. The heart increases in size in athletes like Michael Phelps, heart disease patients like Eric, and patients with high blood pressure. In athletes, the enlargement is beneficial, enabling them to work to their full capacity (Bosler, 2013). For the others? Not so much.

[“Burmese Python head shot” by Allan Hack, (Unedited). License: CC BY-ND 2.0]

To aid her research, Dr. Leinwand began looking into the phenomenon that is the Burmese python’s heart. After the snake gorges on massive quantities of food, its metabolism increases by about 40% and its organs enlarge: its gastrointestinal tract doubles in size, and its heart cells swell by about 40% (Strain, 2011). No new tissue is generated — the cells grow in a process called hypertrophy. The enlarged heart of the python is not unlike that of the human athlete, heavily muscled and extremely capable. And that’s not all; despite ingesting immense volumes of fat, the heart of the Burmese python never seems to suffer from plaque buildup.

Dr. Leinwand became curious. What if the mechanisms behind healthy enlargement of the python’s heart could be applied to humans with heart disease? She hypothesized that there was something in pythons’ blood that made their hearts stronger. She bought several twenty five-foot long pythons and began investigating. After feeding a few of the snakes massive rodent feasts, she took blood samples and was shocked to find that their blood was so fatty, it was practically milky. In fact, it contained almost 50 times more lipids than normal (Altman, 2011).

HEART CONDITIONS

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

When she looked at the snakes’ hearts, she was surprised to find no fat deposits there at all. Dr. Leinwand conjectured that whatever was in python blood that caused the heart to enlarge also prevented fat deposits from forming. Her team found that rat heart cells benefited when exposed to python blood in vitro, confirming the mystery ingredient was in the blood.

[“Blausen 0257 Coronary Artery Plaque” by Bruce Blaus, (Unedited). License: CC BY- 3.0]

Finally, in 2011, Dr. Leinwand isolated three fatty acids in python plasma — myristic acid, palmitic acid, and palmitoleic acid — that enlarged the hearts of both pythons and rats and prevented the buildup of fats in their bodies (Leinwand, 2011). The team jokingly refers to the three acids as “snake oil.”

Dr. Leinwand’s next step will be to determine whether snake oil can help mice with heart problems. If it works in these models, she plans to progress to human testing.

In Brief:

  • Cardiomyopathy is a progressive weakening of the heart.
  • After a Burmese python consumes a large meal, its heart enlarges by 40% and has increased capacity.
  • Surprisingly, the python’s heart shows no sign of unhealthy fat deposits regardless of how much fat it consumes.
  • Three fatty acids called “snake oil” that are found in python blood are responsible for their healthy hearts.

[“Myristic Acid 3D Balls” by Jynto and Ben Mills, (Unedited). License: Public Domain]


Works Cited

This article was written by cYw30. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw30

Author: cYw30

Hi, I'm another student author here at curiousYOUNGwriters! This is my first time writing for this blog and I'm extremely excited to be a part of this amazing experience. I attend a STEM vocational school with a focus on engineering and mathematics, and I have always been fascinated by both medicine and writing. cYw has enabled me to merge my interests in the sciences and humanities, and to give others an idea of what the complex world of biomedical research is like. When I'm not working for cYw, I'm probably studying math, working with my school robotics club, practicing for quizbowl, or playing on my flute. I hope you enjoy your time here on the cYw blog!

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8 Comments

  1. This research story envoked thoughts of the extreme importance of understanding the role biological macromolecules play in cellular organization. We know that cardiac tissue in many mammals have an increased number of mitochondria. Do we know if this is the case with pythons? If so does this organelle have any additional functions in the python that we haven’t seen in mammals?

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    • Hi Erin,

      Thanks for reading my article!
      Regarding your question, studies have found that reptiles have more mitochondria in their hearts than mammals for about the same maximum oxygen consumption rates. However, most of the papers I found dealt with reptiles other than pythons, so I’m not sure if there is something distinctive about the python heart with respect to mitochondria.

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  2. Very interesting

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  3. THis is so touching how he survived it makes me want to cry!

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  4. This really opened my eyes to the world and how bio-medicine can really improve human life. It helped me see the way animals could help improve human life and I really find it astonishing that we can take the unique traits of certain animals and use it to benefit our lives. It also makes me think that these animals have these traits due to evolution. If we humans are much younger than many of these species, what traits could we develop in 100 years? 100,000 years? I was wondering though, how exactly is the oils given to test subjects; Is it directly injected into the blood stream or is there a process.

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  5. It is so interesting how ‘snake oil’ is the reason for the enlargement of a python’s heart and doctors are trying to use this to help people with heart problems. Pythons are going to (if everything goes well) be helping many, many people with heart disease. Due to the fact that there is no none cure for this disease, python’s snake oil could lead to a cure for cardiovascular disease. Thank you so much for writing this article, it has led me to becoming much more knowledgeable on how animals can help people with diseases.

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