The fatty-acid-rich blood of a just-fed python could unlock secrets to healthy heart growth in humans, a study published Thursday shows.

After a python swallows an animal as big as a deer for dinner, its rate of metabolism increases forty-fold and its organs nearly double in size to handle the huge meal, including its heart, which can then more vigorously pump oxygen through its bloodstream.

Also after eating, the level of triglycerides -- the main ingredient of natural fats and oils -- in its blood spikes more than 50 times the normal level.

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that the fatty acid coursing through a python's bloodstream did not deposit in its enlarged heart, as it might in humans. They additionally observed an uptick in activity of a key enzyme, superoxide dismutase, known to protect the heart from damage, according to their study published in the journal Science.

To test the apparent benefits of snake blood on other animals, the scientists injected mice with python blood plasma or a chemical cocktail designed to imitate it. The mice in the study showed increased growth in the major part of the heart that pumps blood and in the heart muscle cell size -- without any negative effects like an increase in heart fibrosis or alterations in the liver or in the skeletal muscles.

"We found that a combination of fatty acids can induce beneficial heart growth in living organisms," said CU-Boulder researcher Cecilia Riquelme, an author of the paper.

"Now we are trying to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the process in hopes that the results might lead to new therapies to improve heart disease conditions in humans."

An enlarged heart is not always associated with good health, especially if it is triggered by genetic diseases that cause the heart muscle to thicken while the heart chambers decrease. But a snake-inspired treatment for healthy heart growth could replicate the benefits of exercise for those with existing cardiac problems.

"Well-conditioned athletes like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and cyclist Lance Armstrong have huge hearts," said lead researcher Leslie Leinwand of CU-Boulder.

"But there are many people who are unable to exercise because of existing heart disease, so it would be nice to develop some kind of a treatment to promote the beneficial growth of heart cells."

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