Every 43 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. Heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the United States every year, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. On the occasions that people survive, however, it’s not uncommon to be plagued with the factors that caused the heart attack, in addition to new issues caused by the heart attack itself.

Doctors have so far found solutions for many of the issues patients face, but two — scarring and muscle degeneration — have yet to be addressed. Fixing what is essentially a broken heart is no easy task, but a multi-university research team led by Professor Pilar Ruiz-Lozano at Stanford University has developed a protein patch that has the potential to actually repair heart damage post-heart attack. Considering the multitude of health issues patients already deal with, this news is welcome.

Life After A Heart Attack

Life changes after suffering a heart attack; after all, the heart is one of, if not the most important muscle in the body. Following a heart attack, a person is likely to need additional doctor visits, a healthier diet, medicines, and cardiac rehabilitation, or any combination of these as part of their daily life.

A doctor is likely to request changes to a person’s medical routine immediately after they suffer a heart attack. They may add prescriptions to control post-heart-attack symptoms, such as chest pain, as well as some designed to control contributing factors, like elevated cholesterol or high blood pressure.

It’s common for a person’s mental health to suffer after a heart attack as well. Feelings of fear, depression, and anxiety are particularly common, and usually last for about two to six months. Though the heart attack is often a powerful trigger for these conditions, it’s also possible for new prescription medicines to cause mental health side effects, making it important to have a thorough understanding of them from the start.

Having a heart attack fundamentally alters the state of the heart, and preventive measures are doubly important, as someone who’s had a heart attack is at risk for a second. Cardiac rehabilitation is one of the most common, which involves exercise and education.

But perhaps the most serious of post-heart-attack problems is the damage that is both non-preventable and irreversible — the damage the heart suffered while being deprived of oxygen. When part of the heart muscle is denied oxygen, it dies. Dead heart tissue leaves scar tissue, which interrupts the normal muscle actions that make the heart pump so efficiently. This scarring, along with muscle degeneration, can lead to a second heart attack, and subsequent death.

It was thought that there was very little to be done about this kind of damage. Until very recently, that is.

A Heart Band-Aid?

Scarring and muscle degeneration are the only two problems that heart attack patients deal with that don’t have a currently available treatment or drug. The patch, however, would address both of these issues.

“Treatments don’t deal with this fundamental problem and consequently many patients progressively lose heart function, leading to long-term disability and eventually death,” Ruiz-Lozano told the Dispatch Tribunal.

The patch utilizes the protein Follistatin-like 1 (FSTL1), found in the edpicardium of mice hearts. The epicardium is the outer layer of the heart that not only protects, but supports growth. The protein was found to stimulate cultured heart muscles to divide, so researchers decided to apply a patch of it to the surface of mouse hearts that had undergone an experimental form of “heart attack.”

The results were remarkable — the protein not only reduced scarring, but it rebuilt the damaged heart as well.

“We are really excited about the prospect of bringing this technology to the clinic,” said Mark Mercola, professor of Bioengineering at UC San Diego and professor in the Development, Aging, and Regeneration Program at SBP. “It’s commercially viable, clinically attractive and you don’t need immunosuppressive drugs.”

Researchers hope to carry out a human clinical trial as soon as possible.

Source: Wei K, Ruiz-Lozano P, Serpooshan V, Hurtado C, Diez-Cunado M, Zhao M, et al. Epicardial FSTL1 reconstitution regenerates the adult mammalian heart. Nature. 2015.