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CU scientists have discovered that a combination of fatty acids in snake blood could help human hearts in the future. Their study is being featured in the current issue of the prestigious journal, Science.
For the last six years, Leslie Leinwand, chief scientific officer for the Biofrontiers Institute and a professor in CU’s Molecular, Cellular, and Development Biology Department, has been studying Burmese pythons with a team of researchers. These snakes have the ability to radically expand their internal organs after a meal and gradually return them to normal size. In this process, the liver, kidneys, intestines and heart of the pythons can expand by up to 50 percent in mass.
“We were interested in that because in humans, your heart can get bigger if you’re a conditioned athlete, but it can also get bigger if you have heart disease,” Leinwand said. “Our hypothesis was that the snakes probably wouldn’t have evolved to do something harmful to themselves every time they ate a meal, and that this was probably what we would call the beneficial type of heart growth. Our long-term goal was to see how the python does this, and see whether we could apply it to mammals and ultimately humans.”
Leinwand said that she had to start the python experiment completely from scratch, as most experiments of this type are performed with worms or mice. Leinwand ordered the Burmese pythons as babies, and they arrived in a pillowcase inside a cardboard box with holes poked in the sides.
“There was a brief moment when I thought, ‘Uh-oh, what have I done?’” Leinwand said.
Leinwand and Cecilia Riquelme, a postdoctoral researcher at CU when the study began and the first author on the study, were eventually able to begin studying the blood of the pythons both before and after they had been fed. They found that the python blood after feeding was “so filled with fat that it was like milk,” which was different than the blood of the pythons that had not eaten. Riquelme then suggested that they test whether this milky blood would also grow rat heart cells.
“It seemed so farfetched to me that I told her to not even bother doing it, but she did it anyway,” Leinwand said. “I’m so happy that she did, because it worked, and that was a great moment. Finding out that it worked in mammals made us completely convinced that we should work as hard as we were working and figure this out.”
Riquelme found that there was a combination of three fatty acids required for heart growth. The researchers then found that this combination, when given to pythons, produced the same growth effect as a meal. It was also discovered to work on living mice.
Word got around on campus about the python study when it began in 2005. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Leinwand developed a research course for undergraduates titled, “The Python Project.” Through this class, 32 undergraduates get real research experience, and Leinwand gets access to students that often have far more experience in handling snakes.
Ryan Doptis, 22, a fifth-year senior majoring in MCDB and integrative physiology, first became involved with the python experiment through Leinwand’s class, and now works as part of the research team. His responsibilities within the team include handling, dissecting, and taking samples from the pythons, which he said are easy to work with.
“Snakes have a really big image problem,” Doptis said. “I had pet snakes in elementary school, and I think when you grow up around them, you realize that they’re not scary animals. I feel that most people’s cats and dogs are more likely to do something dangerous to you than one of these pythons.”
Christopher Wall, who graduated from the MCDB program in 2009, became involved with the python experiment as an undergraduate at CU and was hired as a full-on technician with the research team. Wall has been named a co-author on the study, which is very rare for an undergraduate student, Leinwand said.
“It was really a novel, exciting, high-risk project, and we didn’t know where it was going to go or what was going to happen,” Wall said. “There was so much that we didn’t know about those snakes, and we had to do it all on our own because there were no other labs that knew about them either. It was a great opportunity to learn, and some really amazing discoveries came out of it.”
Though the study was published last week, Leinwand said that there is still a long way to go before the combination of fatty acids can be tested on humans.
“We have a lot more work to do,” Leinwand said. “Our next step in animals is to ask whether or not these fatty acids are beneficial in the area of heart disease. Ultimately, we want to know if this can prevent or slow the onset of heart disease, and if heart disease is already there, whether or not it can be reversed.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Hadley Vandiver at Hadley.firstname.lastname@example.org.