A drug designed to halt and repair heart attack damage could change the way thousands of patients are treated.
The medication mimics the action of a natural rescue and repair compound, and is designed to prevent further damage to the heart.
It also triggers the growth of new, healthy tissue.
The drug was used for the first time on patients last month, in a trial that will see 80 patients taking the four-day treatment.
Each year, around 120,000 people in Britain have a heart attack, where the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked, usually by a blood clot.
It can damage the heart muscle and, if left untreated, this will begin to die from lack of oxygen.
In the most serious type of heart attack, there is a prolonged interruption to the blood supply, resulting from a total blockage of the coronary artery, which causes extensive damage and, in many cases, death.
Treatments include medication to dissolve the blood clot and restore the blood flow to the heart, and surgery to widen the coronary artery.
Survival and long-term effects hinge on the amount of the muscle that dies during the attack.
The smaller the area affected, the greater the chance of survival and recovery.
The new drug, known as BB3, is designed not only to stop this damage, but also to generate new heart cells.
The treatment mimics the action of a naturally occurring compound that boosts the growth of heart tissue, called hepatocyte growth factor.
Studies show that this compound is a crucial part of the heart’s natural repair ‘tool-kit’ and boosts growth by encouraging the creation of blood vessels, so increasing blood supply, and also protecting existing cells from further damage.
In the new clinical trial at Yale University, patients who have had a heart attack will be given the drug through an intravenous drip over four days.
The outcome, measured by the amount of the heart muscle that has been damaged, will then be compared with a control group who will be given saline solution.
Researchers say that a number of other diseases may respond to the drug approach, too.
A trial for ischemic stroke, where an interruption of blood flow to the brain leads to widespread damage, is also scheduled to start soon.
It is thought that the drug may block the cascade of damage that destroys brain cells following a stroke.
It is this expansion of the injury that leads to the devastating consequences such as paralysis.
Scientists are also using this compound in heart bypass surgery, to ensure that the new vein, which is taken from the leg and grafted into the heart, implants successfully in the organ and continues to thrive after the procedure.
Commenting on the Yale University trial, Dr Chris Morley, consultant cardiologist at Bradford teaching hospitals NHS Trust, said: ‘I like the idea of this therapy enhancing natural ways of healing.
‘I look forward to seeing the results of this trial.’
Meanwhile, scientists believe that sniffing a type of meat preservative could be a new way to tackle high blood pressure, and could help clear furred arteries.
The ingredient — a natural salt called a nitrite — boosts levels of nitric oxide in the blood. This in turn widens blood vessels to boost blood flow and lower pressure.
The treatment is about to be tested in a U.S. trial involving patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the artery that runs between the heart and the lungs.
It is estimated that around one in three people have high blood pressure, which, if left untreated, increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and other serious health problems.
Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health have shown that nitrite improves blood flow by opening the blood vessels.
There are a number of clinical trials looking at the role of nitric oxide in cardiovascular conditions, including high blood pressure and peripheral artery disease (when those in the legs become furred up with cholesterol).
This condition results in reduced blood flow and pain.
The aim of the study is to look at the effects of twice-daily doses of nitrite compared with a placebo over a ten-week treatment period.
Nitrites are found naturally in green leafy vegetables. Researchers believe that once in the blood, they are converted to nitric oxide.
In a new trial at the University of Pittsburgh, inhaled nitrites are being used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension, or high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery.
Thirty patients with the condition will be given different dosages and their blood pressure monitored.