A simple injection given to patients up to 12 hours after a heart attack or stroke could reduce their devastating effects by more than half, a new study claims.
British-based scientists have produced an antibody that reduces by more than 60 per cent the physical scarring of the heart and brain after an attack.
The “milestone achievement” could also be used to stop the body attacking organ transplants.
Professor Wilhelm Schwaeble, who carried out the work at Leicester University, said that it could potentially be the “biggest breakthrough ever” in the treatment of two of the biggest killers in Britain.
Heart attacks and strokes are caused by blood flow being blocked by a clot or a bleed, starving parts of the body further down stream of oxygen.
But most of the permanent damage is caused later – when circulation is eventually restored – and a “default of nature” which means the body’s own defences attack the oxygen starved cells.
This effect, which kicks in around nine to 12 hours after the attack or stroke, causes massive inflammation and more than 80 per cent of the permanent damage.
It is this that often leads to death and massive reduction in the quality of life of stroke and heart attack survivors.
Now the researchers at the University of Leicester have come up with an injection which they claim effectively stops the body attacking the oxygen starved cells.
This allows them to start to oxygenate normally and the permanent damage is reduced significantly.
The research has been tested on mice and more advanced mammals and has also been shown to work on human blood in the laboratory.
Human trials are expected to begin within two years.
“This is potentially the biggest breakthrough in the treatment of heart attacks and strokes ever,” said Prof Wilhelm, an immunologist.
“We could not believe what we saw and nor could the cardiologists. What is amazing is that the drug can be given so long after the attack.
“Even the slowest ambulance journey in the world is going to get you to hospital within nine hours.”
Prof Schwaeble said that the treatment could have even more of an effect than statins, the cholesterol lowering drugs taken by more than two million Britons.
Around 200,000 people in Britain die from cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, every year.
The team first uncovered a key molecule in the process responsible for the immune attack.
After identifying the enzyme – called Mannan Binding Lectin-Associated Serine Protease-2 (MASP-2) – they then developed a antibody to knock it out.
The protein – code-named OMS646 – is so effective only two injections in the first week are needed to completely neutralise MASP-2 while the heart heals itself.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
It is anticipated that the first clinical trial will be conducted in the Leicester Biomedical Research Unit, at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester.
Most deaths from heart disease are caused by a heart attack.
Around 62,000 men and 39,000 women in England suffer a heart attack each year.
Stroke causes more than 49,000 deaths in the UK each year.
Around 57,000 men and 68,000 women in England suffer a stroke every year.
It is estimated nearly 1.2 million people living in the UK have had a stroke – roughly evenly split between men and women.