A new study has found that a cheap drug known as metoprolol is highly effective in treating heart attack patients who are on their way to the ER, and preventing the deterioration of heart muscle, before severe damage is done.

People who received metoprolol during emergency transit to the hospital had a 60 percent decrease in “severely deteriorated heart contractile function,” or dead heart muscle, the authors of the study found, in comparison to those who did not receive the drug.

This is one of the first studies to show that early treatment using metoprolol can have a positive effect on the outcome of heart attack patients, and that the more widespread use of this drug can significantly cut health care spending. The study estimates that if metoprolol had been used to treat half of heart attack patients in Europe, savings in treatment could be over 10 billion Euros a year — the equivalent of about $13 billion.

“[I]t has been possible to demonstrate the beneficial and sustained effect of this acute treatment thanks to the realization of advanced cardiac magnetic resonance analysis of almost all the patients in this clinical trial,” Dr. Gonzalo Pizarro, an author of the study, said in a press release. The study was a six-month follow-up of a previous trial.

The earlier a heart attack patient receives the drug, the greater the benefit, researchers found. It also helps prevent hospital readmission for chronic heart failure as well as the need for a cardioverter-defibrillator, which is a device implanted in the chest and used to monitor and treat arrhythmias, or irregular heartbats.

Metoprolol is a type of beta blocker drug, a group of drugs that impact the cardiovascular and circulation systems, which means the flow of blood through veins. It's often used to treat chest pain and hypertension, or high blood pressure, and is sometimes used to prevent heart attacks as well. Using metoprolol in the immediate aftermath of a heart attack has now been proven to be effective, though researchers still need to further investigate.

“[T]he possibility to reduce so dramatically the number of cases of chronic heart failure (with all the associated treatments and hospital readmissions) with such a cheap procedure (the metoprolol treatment costs less than two euros per patient) could generate enormous savings for health services across Europe,” Borja Ibáñez, cardiologist at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and an author of the study, said in the press release.

The researchers hope to continue studying metoprolol's effects, and are developing another clinical trial that will involve 3,000 patients across Europe, as well as researchers from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Denmark, Serbia, Poland, Sweden, and the UK “The results presented today and published simultaneously in this issue of JACC are unprecedented and extremely promising, but rigorous clinical investigation requires corroboration in an independent population,” the authors wrote.

Source: Pizarro G, Fernandez-Friera L, Fuster V, Fernandez-Jimenez R, Garcia-Ruiz J, Garcia-Alvarez A. Long term benefit of early pre-reperfusion metoprolol administration in patients with acute myocardial infarction: results from the METOCARD-CNIC trial. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2014.