An Australian discovery has the potential to transform the treatment of a heart attack with a new approach boosting heart function, and reducing scarring.

An Australian discovery has the potential to transform the treatment of a heart attack, after a new approach boosted heart function, and reduced heart scarring in preclinical studies.

The research breakthrough, published in Science Translational Medicine, involves injecting tiny “microparticles” into the bloodstream within 24 hours of a heart attack to reduce tissue damage made by inflammatory cells. The discovery was made at the University of Sydney, and is the result of an international collaboration with researchers at Northwestern University in the USA, and Bonn and Münster in Germany.

After a heart attack (myocardial infarction), much of the damage to heart muscle is caused by inflammatory cells that rush to the scene of the oxygen-starved tissue – but researchers found this damage was halved when they used the microparticles to keep the highly-damaging cells away.

“This is the first therapy that specifically targets a key driver of the damage that occurs after a heart attack,” says Dr Daniel Getts, one of the researchers from the University of Sydney. “There is no other therapy on the horizon that can do this. It has the potential to transform the way heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease, is treated.”

Nicholas King, Professor of Immunopathology at the University of Sydney and co-discoverer, said the power of the treatment was that the microparticles triggered a natural pathway that destroyed the inflammatory cells.

“We’re very excited,” he says. “This discovery means that we can prevent major tissue damage simply because the inflammatory cells pick up microparticles in the blood stream and are then diverted down a natural cell disposal pathway into the spleen.”

The research shows microparticles also reduce inflammatory damage, and enhance tissue repair, in disease models as diverse as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, peritonitis, viral inflammation of the brain, and kidney transplant, so the discovery also has huge potential beyond the cardiovascular system.

“It’s amazing that such a simple approach can limit major tissue damage in such a wide range of diseases,” says Professor King.

The next step is to carry out safety tests on the microparticles – tiny balls of absorbable material, 200 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Made of a biodegradable compound (poly lactic-co-glycolic acid), the microparticles are already approved for use in humans, and currently used in absorbable surgical sutures. Clinical trials on heart attack patients should follow within two years at the University of Sydney.

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