Scientists at the University of Bristol believe nerve growth factors (NGFs) delivered through gene therapy could encourage the growth of new blood vessels in the human heart, following a study on mice.
Dr Costanza Emanueli and colleagues used an engineered virus to deliver extra copies of the gene for NGF into the hearts of mice.
30 days after having a heart attack, 80% of the mice that received this treatment were still alive, compared with only 60% of mice that did not.
The pumping ability of the heart was also significantly improved in mice that received the NGF gene.
Mice that were given an antibody to neutralise NGF showed higher rates of cell death and more severely impaired heart function.
Furthermore, a post mortem examination of human hearts found high levels of NGF near oxygen-deprived parts of the heart.
Dr Emanueli said: ‘We've shown that in mice, NGF gene therapy improves survival rates after a heart attack, through both a direct protective effect on heart muscle cells and by stimulating the growth of new blood vessels.'
‘In the laboratory, we can deliver therapy directly to the heart at the time of the heart attack. But in a clinical context the therapy will have to be given hours or days later, ideally without the need for surgery. So next we need to see if we can get similar results in this situation.
‘I'm convinced that NGF has huge potential for treating heart attack patients.'
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘The discovery that increasing the production of a natural defence chemical in the heart can help the muscle to repair is very exciting.'
He added: ‘But more research is needed before we can translate this success into a safe and practical treatment for humans.'