Taking the pill when a heart attack occurs, the muscles and blood vessels around the organ could rebuild themselves.
Researchers in Britain claim they may be just a decade away from perfecting a way to persuade the heart to rejuvenate – a process thought to be impossible just five years ago. They have developed a pill that triggers the heart to repair itself after an attack and is a major step towards one of the “holy grails” of medical research.
That means that when a heart attack occurs, the muscles and blood vessels around the organ could rebuild themselves – massively reducing long term damage and improving the quality of life of the victim.
The researchers at University College London have discovered that a protein known as thymosin Beta 4, key to heart growth in the young, appears to reawaken dormant stem cells in the organ of adults.
They now hope to begin human trials in a few years after experiments on mice showed that it improved the performance of the heart by as much as 25 per cent.
Professor Paul Riley, the research leader, said: “I could envisage a patient known to be at risk of a heart attack – either because of family history or warning signs spotted by their GP – taking an oral tablet, along the lines of a statin, which would prime their heart so that if they had a heart attack, the damage could be repaired.”
Unlike other organs, it was thought until recently that the heart lacked the the ability to heal damage to itself.
That meant when someone had a heart attack they had to live with damage and their quality of life was often severely curtailed.
More than 750,000 people live with heart failure in the UK alone, with everyday tasks such as eating, dressing and getting out of bed, leaving many breathless and exhausted.
Treatments range from drugs to transplants but with up to 40 per cent of those affected dying within a year of diagnosis, heart failure has worse survival rate than many cancers.
“It looks as if heart repair is a possibility,” said Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation which funded the research.
“Even five years ago people were saying this is science fiction this is fantasy. It is the start of a long process.
“A small improvement in the heart condition will be a massive improvement in quality of life of the patient.”
Prof Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “To repair a damaged heart is one of the holy grails of heart research.
“This groundbreaking study shows adult hearts contain cells that, given the right stimulus, can mobilise and turn into new heart cells that might repair a damaged heart.”
The study was published in the journal Nature.
Photo credit: Daily Mail