Most of us specially those coming from countries like China and India, where we have ago old tradition of using herbs and products from various animals to cure our ailments, may have heard of Snake oil which is a topical preparation most commonly made from the Chinese Water Snake , and other varieties of other species of snakes in other countries. Snake oil used to be known rather infamous for treatment of joint pain, and used as aphrodisiac in many ancient cultures. Medical Scientists have always seen it with skeptic eyes and it has become such a controversial research topic during 19th century, that they started using snake oil as a phrase/a derogatory term for quack medicine. The expression is also being used metaphorically to any product with questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit. However, after a publication recently appeared in a top notch journal Science, a collaborative effort of a reputed group of scientists from Universities of Colorado and Alabama, USA, people have started thinking that there might be something really worth considering seriously to snake oil after all.
In their experiment, these investigators fed a group of mice (which have hearts quite similar to humans) with a chemical cocktail, which are chemically inspired by the fatty acids of Burmese pythons. After a particular time point, these mice found to have grown bigger hearts than control fed mice.
To understand the origin of the research, we must understand the physiology or functioning of the heart. When the situation demands it, the muscles of mammalian hearts and pump more vigorously. That's useful for pregnant women who need to pump for two, toddlers who need to fuel their rapid growth, or athletes who need to power their regularly exercise. But growing hearts can also be bad news if they're triggered by genetic disorders, high blood pressure or heart attacks. These situations can cause a condition called "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy", in which the heart's thickening walls force it to work harder to pump blood.
To understand how hearts get bigger, this group of scientists which include Cecilia A. Riquelme, Jason A. Magida, Brooke C. Harrison, Christopher E. Wall, Thomas G. Marr, Stephen M. Secor, and Leslie A. Leinwand who is group leader of this study, turned to an animal whose heart is known for swelling in size every time it eats – the Burmese python. As we all know Pythons can swallow extremely large prey like deer, and they remodel their organs to cope with their meals. Intestines and livers of these pythons nearly double in size and their hearts in just two to three days in comparison to most mammalian hearts which become only 10–20% bigger after months of exercise.
After their swollen hearts these pythons change their heart functioning. Their bigger hearts’ vigorous pumping results into higher oxygen supply through the snake's bloodstream, leading to up its metabolism by 44 times. Its cells produce more proteins that strip electrons from food molecules and shunt them onto oxygen, producing water and liberating energy. Its blood vessels fill with 52 times the usual level of triglycerides, substances found in fats and oils. Such levels would clog mammal hearts with fat, but the pythons seem immune. These changes turn the snake into a long, supercharged energy-extracting machine.
These scientists discovered that there is something in the python's blood that triggers the transformation. They extracted plasma from the blood of pythons that had just been fed, and placed it on rat heart cells. They grew in size. They wondered if a protein could be responsible? Then they used either heat or digestive enzymes to destroy the proteins in the python plasma, but it still managed to engorge the rat cells. They concluded that it was not a protein as proteins would have been destroyed by heat or protein specific enzymes. Then what else it could be?
The miraculous ingredients in python blood turned out to be fats. The blood of fasted and fed pythons contained very different blends of fatty acids, and the team identified three that are particularly important – myristic acid, palmitic acid and palmitoleic acid. Well-fed pythons have lots of all three fats, balanced at a very specific ratio. When investigators mixed up this cocktail and injected it into a fasting python, the snake's heart grew as if it had just eaten a big meal. Then they extended their study to a mouse model because they wanted to know if this phenomenon holds trues to mammalian hearts as well. Lo and behold the same fatty acid cocktail also increased the size of mouse hearts within a week. The effects were very specific – the cocktail didn't affect the size of the rodents' other muscles, but cardiac muscles. The enlarged hearts showed no signs of clumps of fat, or fibrosis – a condition that stiffens the heart and accompanies disease.
Wow……the implications are intriguing…is not it??. Might it one day be possible to give someone the heart of an athlete by administering the right combination of python-inspired fatty acids? Dr. Leslie Leinwand herself hopes so, however, she warns - "That is the hope, but we are not advocating that people take pills instead of exercising. We are hoping first to show that these fatty acids might be beneficial in the setting of heart disease and it is a long way off to humans from here."
On a lighter note, for the people in India, next time you see a snake charmer or a quack selling snake oil, just do not reject all his proclaims, he might well be selling something that can cure your ailing heart. And not to forget that every 4th Indian is genetically susceptible to develop cardiac problem in his/her lifetime.
For those who want to read the technical side of the story, here is the link: