Monday, May 14, 2012

Snake Oil's No Good, But Snake Blood Looks Promising.

The Burmese Python (Python bivittatus) is a pretty cool reptile. It’s one of the largest snakes(the largest of the Pythons), and even by snake standards it’s got a big appetite; it can eat things more than 1.6 times it’s weight, like pigs, alligators and deer.

Figure 1: A yummy deer for a hungry python

  Oh, and it might provide a treatment for heart failure. That’s pretty cool too I guess.

                When a snake-especially a big eater like the Burmese Python-eats, a lot of changes happen in its body. Its metabolism jumps from a crawl to an alarming pace, it starts production of all sorts of digestive enzymes it doesn’t normally produce, and its cardiovascular system expands. It’s that last point that interests scientists. While a greatly enlarged heart can be dangerous, some enlargement of the heart is a normal consequence of exercise and helps promote proper blood flow and prevent things like cholesterol from building up in your bloodstream, as well as strengthening the heart. Without this natural expansion from exercise, the chance of developing a heart condition greatly increases. But in our current busy society, lots of people don’t have time to get proper exercise. Plus, let’s be honest here, lots of people just aren’t willing to put the effort into working out all the time.  Worst of all, people with existing heart conditions usually can’t handle strenuous exercise, so their condition worsens or they develop additional conditions. But with all of our technology, we must know some way to cause that same heart expansion without exercise, right? Well, no, or at least not without causing damaged to the heart. But Pythons do, and we might have the technology we need to take their idea.
             That’s what Leslie Leinwand and her team at the University of Colorado are working on. Last year they injected rats’ heart cells with snake plasma in vitro. The result was a healthy rats with an increased production of IGF-1(a hormone that causes the heart to expand in extraneous conditions), as well as stronger more durable hearts and an increased metabolism and ability to process fats.

Figure 2: IGF is sold as a health supplement for athletes because it promotes good blood flow
             By studying these rats, they were able to isolate three fatty acids that seemed to contribute to these symptoms; myristic acid, palmitic acid, palmitoleic acid. Further study showed that injecting these fatty acids into grown, healthy rats seems to produce the same symptoms as injecting the plasma in vitro, meaning the treatment can be applied to adult individuals. Currently the team is working on testing the effects of the treatment on rats with preexisting heart conditions. Their hope is that the treatment will not only prevent new heart conditions, but also reverse existing heart conditions, especially congestion, by flushing out congestants, increasing muscle strength and possibly even healing scaring. After that they have to go through the long and arduous process of getting the treatment approved for humans, which takes at least a couple years, but the project’s future is looking bright.
Figure 3: Weak or clogged heart muscles can lead to the inability to pump blood.

                So how is this case important from a conservationist standpoint? Are Burmese Pythons in danger of extinction, thus endangering the future of this treatment? No; they are considered threated, but not endangered (ironically, one of the main reasons they are overexploited is because natives in India think believe blood has healing properties-but they drink the blood, which as far as anyone can tell has no positive health effects), and there’s quite a lot of them in captivity, so from a researcher’s standpoint there’s plenty of research subjects available. What’s interesting about the Burmese Python is more the fact that it isn’t rare. Pythons have been studied before and their eating habits and metabolism has been well documented for a while now. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the idea of using python blood for human benefit came up, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the idea had any success in the laboratory. In fact, when the idea was first proposed most of Liendward’s contemporaries dismissed it as silly. Liendward herself never had the idea until she happened to read an article in Nature about snakes while researching more conventional treatments for heart failure. The moral here being that just because an organism has been identified or even studied doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything more to provide. New ways of thinking, new technologies and bursts of inspiration allow us to utilize what nature has provided in ways that we hadn’t thought of before. If we wish to reap the full benefit of what nature has to offer in terms of medical inspiration, it is not enough to simply preserve a species long enough so that it can be studied; they need to be preserved further in case new inspiration strikes. You may or may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but an old dog may know a trick you’ve never even knew about.


CITES. May 9, 2012.

Harvey, Charles. ”A Shot of Snake Blood Makes the Heart Grow” New Scientist. Oct. 27. 2011.

King, Anthony. “Snake Oil Cures For Damaged Hearts” Discover Magazine. June, 2012. Print

Klimas, Liz. “Could Snake Blood Soon Benefit Heart Patients?” The Blaze. Oct. 28, 2011.


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