Snake oil might be best avoided but snake blood may be just what the doctor ordered. Injecting snake-blood plasma into mice increased the size of their heart. The discovery could prove key in the treatment of heart damage.
In humans, an enlarged heart is normally a sign that the body is in trouble. Heart attacks, high blood pressure and defects in heart valves all force the heart to work harder and grow to manage the extra load. Growth can scar the heart and decrease the efficiency of nutrient absorption in heart cells.
The heart of the Burmese python, a subspecies of Indian python, also grows. After eating a large meal, the organ nearly doubles in size to pump recently digested nutrients around its body. This growth, however, has no negative side effects and is reversible.
Similarly, heart growth in humans is not always negative. A hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), produced during exercise, causes the heart to swell in order to meet increased bodily demand for oxygen. When growth occurs in this way, there is no scarring.
After eating, a snake's blood contains a cocktail of fatty acids, some of which Leslie Leinwand from the University of Colorado at Boulder, suspected were causing the heart to grow.
To see if this enriched blood could have the same effect on other animals' cells, Leinwand coated in vitro rat heart-muscle cells with the blood plasma of recently fed snakes and found that they produced a greater volume of IGF-1 while also increasing in size. The cells were able to process fats more effectively and had a faster metabolism. The snake plasma also caused the rat cells to produce less NFAT – a protein created when hearts are stressed.
The team next identified three fatty acids that appeared key to these helpful effects. They injected these fatty acids into healthy mice. After one week, the hearts of these mice had increased in size and showed no sign of scar tissue.
Leinwand believes that the discovery could lead to new treatments to strengthen hearts damaged by heart attack. She now plans to test the fatty acids on mice with heart disease to see if cell death in the heart can be slowed or even reversed.
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