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Pythons studied for human heart health

WASHINGTON -- You don't think of pythons as big-hearted toward their fellow creatures. They're better known for the bulge in their bodies after swallowing critters whole.

But the snakes' hearts balloon in size, too, as they're digesting -- and now scientists are studying them for clues about human heart health. The expanded python heart appears remarkably similar to the larger-than-normal hearts of Olympic-caliber athletes.

"It's this amazing biology," said Leslie Leinwand, a molecular biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, whose team reports the findings in Friday's edition of the journal Science. "They're not swelling up."

Burmese pythons can go nearly a year between meals. When they swallow that next rat or bird -- or in some cases deer -- their metabolism skyrockets and their organs immediately grow in size to get the digesting done. The heart alone grows 40 percent or more within three days.

Leinwand, who studies human heart disease, stumbled across that description and saw implications for people. An enlarged human heart usually is caused by chronic high blood pressure or other ailments that leave it flabby and unable to pump well. But months and years of vigorous exercise give some well-conditioned athletes larger, muscular hearts, similar to how python hearts are during digestion.

Now the question is whether that kind of growth could be spurred in a mammal with heart disease, something Leinwand's team is starting to test in mice with human-like heart trouble. They also want to know how the python heart shrinks back to its original size when digestion's done. -- AP