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British researchers have found a way to use a natural protein to repair damaged heart tissue.
One million UK patients could benefit – with the breakthrough expected to save tens of thousands of lives every year.
The research team, led by Professor Ken Suzuki at the William Harvey Research Institute of Queen Mary University of London, discovered a naturally occurring protein, known as “cytokines”, which can stimulate a unique type of heart cell to repair the injured tissue.
An injection of the protein activates the cells, called “macrophages”, leading to increased production of strong connective tissue and blood vessels and protection of heart muscle cells.
The researchers will now try to find the best way of delivering the protein to heart attack patients in the form of a drug which they say should be commercially available within three to five years.
Heart attacks happen to 188,000 people a year in the UK and around seven out of 10 people survive, meaning almost a million people are currently living with damaged organs and are at risk of a new seizure.
Naturally occurring protein 'cytokines' can stimulate a unique heart cell to repair injured tissue
Experts estimate up to a third of those who suffer a heart attack will die from further cardiac causes while others will suffer health problems for life.
For me this development is the biggest news that has ever hit the earth
The larger the heart attack, the larger the area of heart muscle that is damaged. Significant damage means the heart muscle is too weak or stiff to work properly.
Repairing damaged heart tissue could dramatically alter their prospects.
Professor Suzuki, a world-leading specialist, said: “This is very exciting and I believe could lead to a new treatment that could save tens of thousands of lives a year.
“Many patients who have suffered a heart attack have to live with the problems associated with damaged heart muscle, which include fatigue and breathlessness and also the increased risk of heart failure.
Sally Bee survived three successive heart attacks in September 2004, now lives with heart problems
“A drug to repair the injured heart tissue could help eliminate this.”
Barbara Harpham, National Director of Heart Research UK, which is funding the research said: “This will benefit patients as soon as possible. With an ageing population new treatments are urgently needed and this would not only save lives, but could also dramatically improve quality of life.”
Typical of victims is Sally Bee, celebrity chef on the Lorraine morning TV show, who survived three successive heart attacks in September 2004 and now lives with heart problems.
She said: “For me this development is the biggest news that has ever hit the earth.”
Mrs Bee, of Stratford upon Avon, was told she only survived her heart attacks because she was so fit.
Her illness came as a result of a rare condition affecting one of the main arteries to her heart and led to her collapse at a children’s birthday party.
Heart attacks happen to 188,000 people a year in the UK and aroud seven out of 10 people survive
She suffered severe pain in her left arm, nausea, sweating and a central crushing pain in her chest. The mother-of-three went to hospital but was sent home with indigestion medicine.
However, two days later she suffered another heart attack. She returned to hospital and had a third attack while being examined by doctors.
Although she survived, the damage to her heart muscle was “catastrophic”. It has affected her life profoundly but Mrs Bee has dedicated her life to remaining fit and as strong as possible by walking regularly and eating healthily.
“At first walking felt like I was walking in quicksand,” she said. “The heart doesn’t pump efficiently enough to allow you to move properly. I couldn’t run, do weights or do any strenuous exercise.
“On the outside I would appear to lead a normal life but behind closed doors it’s a different story. “I have to build rest into my day. I have to eat healthily. For me this is not a lifestyle choice, it is a life and death choice.
“Every morning I feel lucky to be alive and with my family. But having another heart attack is constantly in the back of my mind.”
Barbara Harpham, national director of Heart Research UK, which is funding the protein research, said: “This will benefit patients as soon as possible.
"With an ageing population new treatments are urgently needed and this would not only save lives, but could also dramatically improve quality of life.”
Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease in which the arteries which supply blood to the heart become clogged with deposits. It is the UK’s single biggest killer, causing almost 70,000 deaths in 2014.
Some 2.3 million people are thought to be living with heart disease, which has been linked to smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, being overweight and poor diet.
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