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).

[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:

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

Works Cited

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