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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Heart disease can cause the human heart to thicken and stiffen (fibrosis), forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood around our bodies. However, while a thickened heart is bad news, one enlarged through exercise is beneficial.

Whether a heart becomes thickened or enlarged is influenced by plasma; the soup of proteins that surrounds our blood cells. University of Colorado professor Leslie Leinwand and her team have discovered that when a python eats, its heart enlarges up to 40 times soon after a large meal. Leinwand’s group found that the increase in heart size was linked to a corresponding increase in levels of fatty acids in the pythons’ plasma. Subsequent experiments showed that injections of ‘fed python’ plasma were able to increase the cardiac health of both fasting pythons and mice.

Using gas chromatography (a means of separating and analysing a mixture of compounds), the team were able to identify a highly complex mixture of fatty acids that were only present in fed python plasma, including myristic acid, palmitic acid and palmitoleic acid. When low dose mixtures of these fatty acids were given to mice over a one week period, the size of their heart muscle cells increased with no sign of fibrosis. The mice also exhibited an increase in the cardioprotective enzyme superoxide dismutase.

The group are now trying to decipher the protein pathways that govern these processes in the hope that their research might improve the treatment of heart disease in humans.

Written by Joanna-Marie Howes

DOI: 10.1126/science.1210558