Doctors 'regenerate' heart muscle for first time - in treatment that could 'help millions'

20 June 2024, 11:40 | Updated: 20 June 2024, 15:09

Medics have been able to make heart muscle "regenerate" for the first time using gentle shockwaves after a bypass surgery.

People given the treatment were shown to have clinically improved a year later compared with patients who had not received the treatment.

As well as the heart pumping more oxygen around the body, the patients given the treatment also reported being able to walk for six minutes without resting and had a better quality of life compared with those who did not receive the treatment.

Professor Johannes Holfeld, from Innsbruck Medical University in Austria, told the BBC that the treatment could help "millions of people".

"It means they are able to go out for a walk with their dog again or go to the supermarket in their everyday life," Prof Holfeld said.

"We also anticipate they will have a longer life expectancy and fewer re-hospitalisations."

Heart bypass surgery is the most common major surgery in the Western world, according to Innsbruck Medical University, and can help patients whose supply of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked.

The operation creates a new path for blood to flow around narrowed or clogged parts of the major arteries to improve blood flow and oxygen supply. Although it works to preserve heart function it cannot improve it - paving the way for researchers to assess whether they could help regenerate the damaged heart muscle post-surgery.

'Feasible and safe'

In a trial involving just over 60 patients in Austria, researchers used a machine - dubbed a "space hairdryer" - to apply mild soundwaves shortly after a bypass.

It was thought that the 10-minute procedure would stimulate the growth of new vessels around the area damaged or scarred after a heart attack.

A year after surgery, the amount of oxygenated blood pumped by the heart had increased by 11.3% in shockwave patients and 6.3% in the control group who did not get the treatment, according to the study, which has been published in the European Heart Journal.

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Researchers now hope to conduct a larger trial to confirm their findings.

"The treatment was both feasible and safe. The results of the trial suggest that this treatment strategy could contribute to solving the unmet clinical need for myocardial regeneration in patients suffering from ischaemic heart failure," they wrote in the paper.

A blockage or disease of the heart or blood vessels is described by the general term cardiovascular disease and is the leading cause of death globally, killing an estimated 18 million people each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation and consultant cardiologist, called the trial "exciting".

She said: "Heart failure can be an extremely debilitating condition, estimated to affect over one million people in the UK. Ischaemic heart disease, or a lack of blood supply to the heart muscle, is known to be the biggest single contributor to the number of heart failure patients.

"Heart surgery that bypasses blocked coronary arteries undoubtedly helps alleviate symptoms for ischaemic heart disease patients and may prevent heart failure. But this is not always the case, and there is still much room for improvement.

"What's exciting about this trial is that a year later, people who had shockwave therapy to the heart during their operation had better heart function and fewer symptoms than those who didn't. Bigger and longer trials are now needed to research the long-term effects."