Saturday, October 29, 2011

Learning from the pythons ...

Today, Saturday, October 29, 2011, Page 26, Science
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THE NEW YOR K TIMES, 04:46 AM Oct 29, 2011

PHOTO: Scientists are studying snakes, such as this adult Burmese python, for clues about human heart health.
AP, Copyright © MediaCorp Press Ltd

BOULDER (Colorado) - Pythons are known for their enormous appetites. In a single meal they can devour animals at least as big as they are - deer, alligators pigs and house pets, for example.

PHOTO: Pythons are known for their enormous appetites

Equally remarkable is what happens inside the python as it digests its prey. Within a day, its heart and other organs can double in size. The metabolic rate and production of insulin and lipids soar.

PHOTO: Python intestines, hearts and kindneys undergo remarkable increases in size during digestion. MRI and CT-scanning work showed exactly what happens to the ingested bodies as they're digested inside the snake.

Then, like an accordion, the python's organs return to normal size in just a few days. Metabolism slows. Then the snake can fast for months, even a year, without losing muscle mass or showing any ill effects, ready to ambush new prey.

How this process happens so rapidly is a biological mystery with important implications for human health, particularly when it comes to heart failure.

Now scientists at the University of Colorado here are reporting that they have partly solved it.

In a paper in the current issue of Science, they report that a gorging python expands its heart by enlarging existing cells - a process called hypertrophy - and not by creating new ones. (It is not known whether snakes get heart disease.)

PHOTO: Immovable feast ... an over-full python became stuck in the middle of a Malaysian road after swallowing a pregnant sheep / Reuters

A second finding is that a specific combination of three fatty acids produces enlargement of a python's heart, intestines, liver and kidneys. (The brain does not expand, presumably because it is confined by the skull.) Injections of the combination produce similar growth in the heart of a mouse.

Understanding such exaggerated variations, the researchers say, could help them develop novel ways to delay, prevent, treat or even reverse various hereditary and acquired human diseases.

Pharmaceutical companies have scientifically manipulated substances from other reptiles to develop marketed drugs. For example, Byetta, a diabetes drug, is derived from a hormone found in Gila monster saliva.

And the day may come when doctors literally prescribe snake oil for heart disease. "Heart failure is the goal" of the python research, said Dr Leslie Leinwand, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor at the University of Colorado and a senior member of the research team. She added that the findings might also lead to treatments to prevent sudden death in young athletes, as well as ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
By THE NEW YOR K TIMES, 04:46 AM Oct 29, 2011