Python Plasma for Heart Health

Being called a snake oil salesman has historically been bad, as snake oil was a derisive term for fake health products. A snake oil salesman, therefore, was a charlatan, someone who took advantage of the people who wanted miracle cures for common ailments. However, if the research that Leslie Leinwand, a molecular biologist at the University of Colorado, is conducting with pythons pays off with a medical breakthrough, then being a snake oil salesman may start to have a positive connotation.

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Python power

Pythons may go a year or longer without having a meal to sustain them. Because of this, the python has developed a survival mechanism to help deal with this prolonged starvation period. Once a meal is eaten the python's heart doubles in size, it produces triglycerides at a rate fifty times faster than before the meal, gains muscle mass in its body, and produces insulin and lipids at a higher rate. Even after the meal is digested, the muscle mass is not lost, and this helps the python last until the next food source is found. Leinwand began studying this phenomenon in 2005 with a team of researchers she started calling the Python Project.

They soon found that there were three fatty acids that contributed to the growth in muscle mass in the pythons they studied: myristic acid, palmitoleic acid, and palmitic acid. Even with these fatty acids in the bloodstream, there was no evidence that fat was deposited in the heart, although there was evidence of an enzyme that is beneficial to heart health. In order to test whether they had the right data, the researchers injected the "fed python" plasma into the bodies of "fasting" pythons, as well as a synthetic version of the fatty acids. Both cases showed the researchers were headed in the right direction, as the "fasting" pythons displayed the same characteristic heart growth that happens in nature.

Now that the studies have shown positive results the Python Project is "trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the process, in hopes that the results lead to new therapies to improve heart disease conditions in humans," according to Cecilia Riquelme, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado and member of the Python Project.

The next step in their research was to test the effect in mammals, injecting both the "fed python" plasma and the synthetic mixture in laboratory mice. The researchers once again found heart growth that mimicked what was witnessed in the pythons.

Big hearted research

Unlike the derisively titled "snake oil" of the past, this new discovery could have many beneficial applications for the health care field. Enlarged hearts might normally be a sign of congenital defects, and some cardiac diseases cause the muscle to grow while constricting the separate chambers, thus slowing blood flow and making the heart work much harder than it should have to. Enlarged hearts can keep people from being active, which in turn can exacerbate health issues. Cardiac sonographers are tasked with examining patients for impaired heart functions, so they see many of these problems up close. Having a new method to treat patients may make their jobs a little easier.

This is not to say that all instances of an enlarged heart are bad. The heart of an athlete can expand about 30-40 percent while they are exercising, but this growth is not a detriment to their health. It allows more oxygen into the bloodstream, helping athletes perform at high levels for extended periods of time. Being able to produce a drug from the snake oil has the potential to help people with heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, and might lower the risk of experiencing a heart attack. Leinwand and Python Project hope to cause the beneficial type of heart enlargement in humans once they are able to test out their beliefs a bit more. The tests with mice have been very successful so far, and up next the team hopes to "[s]imulate a genetic heart disease model, cause a heart attack, and give the [mice] high blood pressure" in order to further test the positive effects of the three fatty acids.

Slithering towards the finish line

As Leinwand gets closer to her goal, it is not the letters she has received from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that may derail her research. It is a lack of funding. Conducting the experiments necessary to discover a possible new drug is very expensive, and Leinwand has already been at her task for about nine years. There are still plans to test on larger mammals, and then move on to voluntary human testing. This will require a lot more funding, and as of now the money she has received from the Colorado health department and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is almost gone. Leinwand has applied for a grant from the National Institute of Health, which is currently under review. She has even sought funding from venture capitalists who, while they are interested in "the biology and the story" of the possible applications of this discovery, they still remain "nervous [about investing]," according to Leinwand. The researcher is not nervous about investing in her own research, a fact made apparent by her creation of the Hiberna Corporation of Bolder in 2008 to help manufacture the drug once it is ready for the production stage.

Hopefully problems with funding sort themselves out soon, as the snake plasma Leinwand is studying has the potential to help people with heart defects, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It may also lower the risk of having a heart attack. Leinwand hopes to have the drug ready for sale within the next decade.


"For Heart Health, Snake Oil," Cayte Bosler, The Atlantic, October 2, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/for-heart-health-snake-oil/280172/

"Snake oil to treat heart disease? Idea may not be so far-fetched," University of Colorado, http://www.colorado.edu/news/features/snake-oil-treat-heart-disease-idea-may-not-be-so-far-fetched

"Big Idea: Snake Oil Cures for Damaged Hearts," Anthony King, Discover, June 2, 2012, http://discovermagazine.com/2012/jun/03-snake-oil-cures-for-damaged-hearts#.UlyncTK9KSM

"Snakes' Feat May Inspire Heart Drugs," Lawrence K. Altman, New York Times, October 27, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/health/python-digestion-study-holds-promise-for-human-heart-health.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.