A pill to mend broken hearts could be a reality in as little as five years if enough support is given to early research, it was claimed today.
The prediction was made at the launch of a £50 million fundraising campaign to boost pioneering work on heart failure.
Scientists are taking the first steps down avenues of stem cell research and biotechnology that could one day make damaged hearts as easy to repair as broken bones.
The “Holy Grail” would be a pill, or injection, that could stimulate the heart to heal itself.
36-year-old Joanne Ward, from Sheffield, suffered a heart attack shortly after giving birth to her second son Tyler five years ago and is helping to promote the appeal.
She said: “Living with heart failure means everything from doing the washing to playing silly games with my sons requires a huge amount of effort, and sometimes they’re just too hard to do.
“Until I got ill, I never realised heart muscle couldn’t repair itself, I thought it was just like any other muscle that healed over time. The fact my heart won’t heal can be overwhelming but I refuse to let heart failure define me. A research breakthrough could make a massive difference to people like me, so there is always hope.”
Research is already under way, focusing on fundamental mechanisms that allow the self-repair of hearts in fish and amphibians.
Another approach targets rare stem cells - immature cells that develop into a variety of tissues - that can rebuild lost heart muscle.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is behind the Mending Broken Hearts appeal, which marks its 50th anniversary and comes as heart failure rates are reaching epidemic proportions.
It hopes to raise £50 million over the next five years to spend on cutting-edge heart failure research. This would be on top of the £75 million-£80 million research funding the charity hands out to scientists each year.
Heart failure, a severe loss of pumping power due to muscle damage, commonly follows a heart attack and can lead to severe disability and early death.
Over the last few decades, heart attack death rates have gone down but heart failure rates have gone up.
In 1961 an estimated 100,000 people in the UK had heart failure. But an ageing population and the fact that more people are now surviving heart attacks has pushed this figure up to more than 750,000 today.
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the BHF, said: “Since the BHF’s inception 50 years ago, we’ve made great strides in medical research to better diagnose and treat people with all kinds of heart problems. But the biggest issue that still eludes us is how to help people once their heart has been damaged by a heart attack.
“Scientifically, mending human hearts is an achievable goal and we really could make recovering from a heart attack as simple as getting over a broken leg.”
Speaking at a news conference in London, he said the development of a pill that helped the heart renew itself was the “Holy Grail” for scientists, but conceivable.
A “cocktail” of treatments, or injections to the heart, were other possibilities.
“We would hope through this fundamental work that within about five years we’ll be in a position to do proof-of-principle trials in patients,” Prof Weissberg added. “If that looks promising, we would go into clinical trials over the next five years.
“In terms of main-line treatment this might be eight to 10 years away. That might be optimistic, but if somebody cracks it in the next year or two things could accelerate very fast.”
One of the most promising areas of research involves learning lessons from nature to find ways of making the heart heal itself.
Many animals have the ability to regenerate parts of their bodies, including hearts. A team led by Professor Paul Riley, from the Institute of Child Health, University College London (UCL), has been studying the zebra fish which can renew its heart even when a fifth of the organ is missing.
The key is the epicardium, the protective outer layer of the heart. In zebra fish with heart damage, the epicardium stimulates the growth of both new muscle cells and blood vessels. But this ability is dormant in all mammals, including humans. Prof Riley’s team has discovered a natural protein, thymosin beta 4, that plays a role in activity. The scientists have already had some success using the protein to “wake up” epicardial cells in heart-damaged mice.
“We hope to find similar molecules or drug-like compounds that might be able to stimulate these cells further,” said Prof Riley.
Starting with tests on human tissue samples, the ultimate goal of the research is a drug that gives the human heart a self-healing ability similar to that of zebra fish.
Another line of research being followed by scientists at Imperial College London involves identifying rare heart-rebuilding stem cells that can be grown in the laboratory.
These cells are highly active in developing hearts, readily growing into new functional tissue, but are switched off soon after birth. The Imperial College scientists are trying to find ways of re-activating the cells in a controlled and safe fashion.
“One strategy would be to give a drug that would activate this kind of process in the latent stem cells that exist in adult human hearts,” said Professor Michael Schneider, who heads the group. “This requires more knowledge about what signals trigger these cells.”
Prof Weissberg said if the research was successful he could see new heart repair treatments taking the place of transplants.
“It would certainly obviate the need for heart transplants for people who have had heart attacks,” he said.
He acknowledged that other types of heart failure, such as genetically inherited cases or conditions arising from viral infections, might be more difficult to tackle without resorting to transplants.
Anyone who wants to support the Mending Broken Hearts appeal can call 0300 333 0333 or visit bhf.org.uk/mbh.