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Monday, 28 August, 2000, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
Scientists 'wake' heart muscle
Heart attack
Procedure could reduce the risk of a heart attack
Scientists have found a way to significantly increase blood flow to the hearts of seriously ill patients.

The technique involves injecting a gene which stimulates growth into areas of dead or unresponsive heart muscle.

Researchers from Tufts University in Boston found that the gene stimulated the new growth of blood vessel tissue.


There has been great concern about whether gene therapy works. This is very solid evidence that it does

Professor Jeffrey Isner, Tufts University, Boston

The VEGF gene is so-called because it controls production of a substance known as vascular endothelial growth factor.

Lead researcher Professor Jeffrey Isner said: "To my knowledge, this is the first study using objective findings that has demonstrated improvement in blood flow to the heart using gene therapy.

"There has been great concern about whether gene therapy works. This is very solid evidence that it does."

Thirteen patients took part in Professor Isner's trial.

Each person had suffered angina (chest pain), had at least one heart attack, and had undergone by-pass surgery.

Twelve of the patients had undergone one or more balloon angioplasties to open narrowed arteries.

In some patients, Professor Isner's team found that the gene therapy revived areas of the heart that appeared to be dead, but which were only "hibernating."

Professor Isner said: "This is a potentially important finding that was quite unexpected.

"We saw large areas where there was no blood flow to the heart when the patient was at rest, but many of those resting defects were gone after gene transfer."

Progress for patients

None of the participants in the study had suffered a heart attack, death or other serious complication at a six-month follow-up after their procedure.

The patients received gene therapy through a small incision made in the chest.

Doses of the VEGF gene were injected into four places in the heart.

The average number of angina attacks among participants dropped from 48 per week before gene therapy to two per week six months afterwards.

Average weekly use of nitroglycerin tablets to fight chest pain fell from 55 to two in the same period.

Muscle function restored

Most importantly, areas of heart muscle that were assumed to be dead scar tissue caused by a heart attack had restored function in nine patients, partially or completely, within 60 days after gene therapy.

Four patients had partial and five patients had complete restoration of blood flow to "hibernating" areas.

Professor Isner said: "What we have shown is that VEGF gene transfer is sufficiently potent to provide enough blood supply to rescue an area of hibernating heart muscle."

A British Heart Foundation spokeswoman said gene therapy was an "exciting prospect" for treating a variety of cardiovascular diseases in future.

"This new research, although carried out on a small number of patients, has shown promising results, as has other research using VEGF in the US and Europe.

"It remains an experimental treatment - further research into gene therapy and its delivery techniques is required before the full potential in treating cardiovascular diseases can be evaluated."

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