Researchers at Tufts University, Boston, have used gene therapy to treat patients with serious heart conditions. The trial involved 13 people affected by continuous, severe chest pains, caused by 'dead' areas of heart muscle. The scientists used gene injections to successfully restore blood flow to the affected muscle in nine of the patients. 'There has been great concern about whether gene therapy works' said team leader Professor Jeffrey M Isner. 'This is very solid evidence that it does'.
Patients in the trial were given four injections of a gene called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) into their hearts. The VEGF gene makes a protein that triggers growth of new blood vessels. The treatment completely restored blood flow to the affected area in five of the patients, and partially in four others. The average number of angina attacks among all the participants dropped from 48 per week before the gene therapy to just two per week afterwards.
Professor Isner said the work showed that VEGF gene transfer was sufficiently potent to provide enough blood supply to rescue an area of hibernating heart muscle. 'This is a potentially important finding that was quite unexpected' he said.
The US researchers believe the approach may one day make heart bypass surgery redundant. UK cardiologist Dr Duncan Dymond agrees the research could bring about a 'quantum leap' in the treatment of heart disease, although many more trials were needed.