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Improving cardiac health by learning from pythons

Pythons are able to quickly recover from the harmful biproducts of large meals. Understanding these processes could lead to important medical advances for humans. (Photo: National Park Service/File)

In a recent article published in Science, the authors were curious to understand how Burmese pythons are able to cope with the sudden surge in fats and other nutritional components derived from a large meal like an alligator or deer. They noted that the level of a particular type of fat also carried in the blood of humans (triglycerides) spiked to levels ~50 times that of preprandial levels in these pythons.

What is perhaps more fascinating was the observation that the pythons internal organs adapted rapidly to digest these large meals before regressing down their previous sizes.

Learning how organs like the heart can increase in size so dramatically has significant potential to advance human medicine and possibly uncover the pathomechanics behind pathological enlargement of the heart, as occurs in conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Though hypertrophic cardiomyopathy may occur in the elderly, a hereditary form is prevalent particularly amongst African Americans; those with the hereditary form may suffer from sudden cardiac death at a young age -- an event that occurs more commonly during intense physical activity (for example during competitive sports).

While some organs like the liver are quite resilient and have the capacity to regrow to approximate their original size even after up to 80 percent is removed (as occurs in liver transplant donors), other organs, such as the heart, enlarge rather than regrow. This limits the hearts capacity to recover properly from insults (as occurs during heart attacks) and can lead to abnormal enlargement in those with cardiovascular disease. The difference between the liver and the heart stems from the ability of liver cells to multiply and enlarge; heart cells can simply enlarge but do not proliferate.

The study points to a number of substances (particularly fatty acids) and hormones (IGF-1) that may be responsible for protecting the heart postprandially by altering gene expression within myocytes (heart cells) and encouraging physiological heart growth. Learning from these extreme changes in metabolism and rapid heart enlargement will provide an increased understanding of our own physiology and possibly open the door to new therapeutic avenues by which cardiac health can be augmented in those with underlying pathology.