A “transformational” new treatment to repair heart attack damage could be available within five years after scientists identified the cause of scar tissue.
The drug could greatly improve the quality of life for heart attack survivors and significantly reduce the risk of them developing heart failure, the researchers say.
Scientists have discovered that heart attacks create huge numbers of “zombie cells” that damage the organ and impede its recovery, causing inflammation and creating scar tissue which means it cannot pump properly.
And experiments in mice, using a new class of ‘anti-zombie’ drug, increased the efficiency of the heart by 30 percent, by reducing inflammation, shrinking scar tissue, and prompting blood vessel growth.
The drug, known as navitoclax, works by eliminating the senescent, or ‘zombie’, cells – so-called because they are not dead but do not work as they should and which can zombify neighboring cells.
“Our work reveals that drugs to kill zombie cells could be transformational in the treatment of heart diseases,” said lead researcher, Gavin Richardson, of Newcastle University.
“We’ve discovered that removing zombie cells can revitalize the heart after a heart attack,” he said.
“We now need to test the long-term impact of killing these cells and to ensure the drug is safe to be tested in humans. We hope that this zombie cell-killing drug could be treating heart attack patients in the next five to ten years,” Dr. Richardson added.
A typical adult heart is between 55 and 70 percent efficient and heart failure occurs when it falls below 40 percent.
This means the 30 percent improvement seen in the experiments would, in many cases, make the difference between heart attack survivors going on to develop heart failure and not. And for many others, it will reduce the fatigue and breathlessness associated with a poorly-functioning heart, researchers said.
Professor Metin Avkiran, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, which funded the research, said:
“The heart can’t mend itself so effective treatments to help restore normal heart function after a heart attack are desperately needed.”
“It’s early days yet, but if further research goes on to show that they are safe and effective in people, drugs that target senescent cells could provide an entirely new way of treating heart attacks,” Prof Avkiran said.
Heart attacks account for more than 100,000 hospital admissions a year in the UK – one every five minutes. While at least seven out of 10 people survive, they live with damaged hearts.
Experts who were not involved in the research welcomed the findings.
“This study is both exciting and important, and could provide a new means of improving the outcome of patients having a heart attack,” said Professor Derek Yellon, at University College London.
“These are exciting, highly promising findings that bring to the forefront the therapeutic potential of senolysis in cardiac recovery and repair, offering hope to heart attack survivors”, said Professor Georgina Ellison, of King’s College London.
“This is a potential game-changer and lays the foundation for extending these findings to human studies,” said Taranjit Singh Rai, of Ulster University. The research is published in the journal Aging Cell.
The heart attack treatment being developed by Newcastle University could potentially be used to treat a whole range of age-related conditions further down the line, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to lung problems, cancers, muscle wastage, and liver disease, researchers say.
The ‘zombie’ cells behind heart attack damage are typically caused by aging and have been associated with – though in many cases not yet proven to cause – a wide range of age-related diseases.
Because the role of zombie cells in heart attack damage (where they essentially age the heart) and age-related diseases appears to be similar “the same drug might work on all of those different groups,” said lead researcher, Gavin Richardson, of Newcastle University. But for now, the heart is the focus.