Transplant drug used to treat heart attacks

13 July 2015        

Gillian Grey relfections of research image

New research funded by us from Newcastle University has revealed how a drug commonly used after transplant operations could limit some of the heart damage caused by a heart attack.

The findings, published today in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggest that temporarily decreasing a part of someone’s immune system could be beneficial immediately after a heart attack. After an organ transplant, drugs like cyclosporin are used to suppress the body’s immune system to stop it rejecting a donated organ, and scientists now think these drugs could also hold the key to limiting heart damage.

During a heart attack, a clot starves the heart of blood and can cause lasting damage. The heart is then damaged further by a mixture of chemicals and cells that rush into the heart as blood flow is restored when a stent is inserted to open the blocked artery. Doctors are currently unable to prevent or repair this damage and do not fully understand how the chemical build-up causes such severe damage.

How is the immune system involved?

The research team in Newcastle have shown that white blood cells called T-lymphocytes could be responsible for a significant part of heart damage, as they can become activated during a heart attack and travel into the heart muscle. Once inside the muscle tissue, they can release toxic chemicals that kill off parts of the heart. Normally these T-lymphocytes and their toxic chemicals would be used to fight infection.

In a small clinical trial, the team are now investigating how cyclosporin could limit heart damage after a heart attack by suppressing the activation of T-lymphocytes, stopping them from travelling into the heart muscle and damaging it.

What does this mean for heart patients?

Professor Ioakim Spyridopoulos, funded by us and leading the research, said: “Our research investigates exactly how we can target heart damage after a heart attack, and suggests drugs that could help.

“The beauty of this research is that we have used our new understanding of what happens inside the heart to help identify a potential drug that is already in use. If successful, heart attack patients could see the benefit of the study within a few years.”

...we could improve the outcome for the 500 people who go to hospital with a heart attack each day in the UK.

Professor Jeremy Pearson
Our Associate Medical Director

Professor Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said: “This careful clinical investigation suggests that we could improve the outcome for the 500 people who go to hospital with a heart attack each day in the UK. 

"By using a drug already commonly given to transplant patients, their findings can be immediately tested in heart attack patients. We look forward to the outcome of Professor Spyridopoulos' trial."


We are funding millions of pounds of heart attack research every year. You can donate to help us help repair the damage after a heart attack that can lead to debilitating conditions like heart failure.