- Pythons can turn their digestive systems on and off
- When treated with the plasma of recently fed pythons, human cells showed increased insulin release
- Python plasma could help treat diabetes in the future
It’s all about the discovery.
At least, it is for Dr. Stephen Secor, professor of evolutionary and integrative physiology at the University of Alabama. So when MIT student, Amit Choudhary, contacted him about a possible connection between Burmese pythons and diabetes, Dr. Secor leaped at the thought of discovery.
Diabetes is classified as a group of conditions in which the body, specifically the pancreas, loses its ability to secrete a substance responsible for regulating blood sugar: insulin. People with type I diabetes make up about 10% of all patients diagnosed with diabetes and are completely unable to produce insulin. Type II patients, who can’t produce enough insulin to properly regulate their blood sugar, make up the other 90% of patients with diabetes.
With some patients forced to inject insulin manually and others dying from associated conditions like liver failure, diabetes can be debilitating and have serious health consequences.
But what does that have to do with the Burmese python?
The answer lies in the Burmese python’s unusual digestive process, which allows them to go many months between meals. Their ability to survive without food led researchers to wonder, how do these pythons sustain their blood sugar and avoid the key problem patients with diabetes face?
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Secor described his research on the reptile.
“Burmese pythons have a unique digestive response. They shut down their digestive system when they’re done digesting a meal and when they eat, they turn it back on again.”
After the python eats, its physiological response is remarkable. Its organs, including the insulin-producing pancreas, grow and increase in function. As a result, the Burmese python can produce large amounts of insulin to regulate its blood sugar for months at a time.
After Dr. Secor’s initial studies found that pythons secreted 45 times more insulin after eating, it made sense to pursue Amit Choudhary’s theory of a connection between python blood and insulin secretion.
Choudhary treated human beta cells, which are responsible for insulin secretion, with the plasma of recently fed pythons.
The beta cells experienced a 30% increase in the amount of insulin that could be stored after production, but the real results came when the cells were introduced to glucose, a simple sugar. When exposed to glucose, the beta cells released 65% more insulin than their untreated counterparts. With an increase in insulin production and better insulin storage, Secor and Choudhary’s research establishes the python’s digestive process as a step towards developing a potential treatment for both type I and type II diabetes.
Dr. Secor knows that they’ve come across a promising discovery. “We are the pioneers when [it comes to] looking at the [Burmese python’s] pancreas. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the snakes, but it turns out I knew nothing.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but there’s one thing for sure. With their drive for discovery and new research, Dr. Secor and his team offer hope for those suffering from diabetes.
- “Diabetes.” Mayo Clinic. July 31, 2014. Accessed September 15, 2016.
- Secor, S. M., A. Choudhary, M. Lundh, and B. Wagner. “Is Extreme Physiology of Burmese Pythons Relevant to Diabetes?” The FASEB Journal. April 2014. Accessed July 3, 2016.
- Secure, S. M., and J. Diamond. “A Vertebrate Model of Extreme Physiological Regulation.” Nature. October 15, 1998. Accessed August 15, 2016.
- Secure, S. M. “Specific Dynamic Action: A Review of the Postprandial Metabolic Response.” Journal of Comparative Physiology B. July 03, 2008a. Accessed August 15, 2016.
- Secure, S. M. “Digestive Physiology of the Burmese Python: Broad Regulation of Integrated Performance.” Journal of Experimental Biology. October 10, 2008b. Accessed August 15, 2016.
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