Researchers may have found a cheap way to keep heart attack victims alive while preventing long-term damage to their heart muscles, according to a newly released study.

Officials at the Experimental Cardiology Group at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones in Spain found that patients who were given a drug called metoprolol on their way to the hospital during a heart attack suffered less heart muscle damage.

The drug, which is off-patent and costs less than $3 a dose, could potentially create millions of dollars in savings. Patients with less long-term heart damage require less care, including shorter hospital stays. They also don’t require an implantable defibrillator, the study showed.

The biggest concern for researchers is that the drug has to be given to a patient in the early stages of the heart attack, which might prove difficult.

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“We have known about the drug for a long time, and we had information obtained by other means that this could work,” said Valentín Fuster, a joint leading investigator on the study. “This drug has been used for many other purposes. We used it to study, and it opened the possibility that this could work.”

Doctors currently use metoprolol to treat high cholesterol, irregular heart rhythms, migraines, and temporary anxiety.

“Sometimes, the true health benefits of these ‘classical’ drugs are not completely known,” said Borja Ibáñez, also a joint leading investigator on the study, in a press release. “But the absence of commercial protection makes them unattractive candidates for independent clinical research.”

“The savings in healthcare costs will run into the millions; a per-patient outlay of less than two euros will over the years save thousands,” Ibáñez added.

Laying the Groundwork

Testing by pharmaceutical companies produced evidence that prompted Fuster’s study, he said. His group received a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness to conduct the testing, which began in 2010 and included 270 patients.

The group partnered with three emergency response teams and did all of their research in Spain over the course of one month. 

Currently, patients don’t receive medication before undergoing surgery to remove the blockage in their arteries that is causing the heart attack, Fuster said.

Heart attack survivors often suffer from extensive damage to the heart muscle that is not repairable. The attack leaves behind a weakened heart that may beat irregularly and shorten a person’s life.

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The study results have the potential to change how medical providers treat heart attack patients, as well as outcomes for those who suffer from them. But that will require further testing, Fuster said.

“The biggest thing isn’t that the drug is very cheap,” Fuster said. “The issue that is important is how you put the whole system together. The system needs to pull things together very quickly to limit the amount of muscle that dies. These are the issues you have to concentrate on.”

Researchers in the group plan to extend their trial to a larger number of patients—as many as 1,000—in multiple countries. These tests will confirm whether the drug reduces damage to the heart muscle and deaths resulting from heart attacks, Fuster said.