A new injectable hydrogel capable of repairing heart tissue after a heart attack has been deemed safe by bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and is ready for clinical testing in humans this year, according to a recent study published in Science Translational Medicine.

In the United States, an estimated 785,000 heart attacks occur each year, according to a UCSD press release. While a growing number of people survive heart attacks, many patients later develop heart failure due to cardiac tissue damage, “for which the five-year survival rate is only 50 percent,” researchers wrote.

"Our data show that this hydrogel can increase cardiac muscle and reduce scar tissue in the region damaged by the heart attack, which prevents heart failure,” said lead researcher Karen Christman, a UCSD professor in the Department of Bioengineering. “These results suggest this may be a novel minimally invasive therapy to prevent heart failure after a heart attack.”

How the Gel Works

According to researchers, once injected, the hydrogel forms a scaffold, or temporary platform, on which stem cells and new blood vessels can gather and mature. The new cells and vessels eventually replace the scar tissue left behind by the heart attack. Because the gel is made from heart tissue taken from pigs, the damaged heart responds positively, creating an environment in which the heart is able to naturally rebuild itself, Christman said in a press release.

Christman and her colleagues established the safety of the gel in large and small animal studies. According to researchers, animals treated with the hydrogel did not suffer any negative side-effects, such as inflammation, lesions, or an irregular heartbeat during safety experiments conducted as part of the study. The gel also had no effect on blood’s ability to clot when researchers tested it on human blood samples.

According to UCSD scientists, doctors can inject the gel while patients are under sedation, without the need for general anesthesia. After the damaged tissue is repaired, the hydrogel is degraded by the body.

The Future of Heart Repair

Currently, there are no approved therapies capable of repairing heart muscle after a heart attack.

“Cell transplantation has been examined in clinical trials, but has had limited improvements to date,” Christman said in an interview with Healthline.

Researchers began their work on the injectable hydrogel matrix in 2008, and with the first clinical trial in heart attack patients beginning this year, Christman and her team will finally get to see the results of their careful study. Ventrix Inc., a company founded by Christman, is already working to turn the hydrogel into a clinical-grade product.

“If successful in clinical trials, it could significantly improve the quality of life for heart attack patients and prevent them from going into heart failure,” Christman said, “The product could be available as early as 2016 in Europe and 2018-19 in the U.S.”

How to Recognize a Heart Attack

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, not only could acting fast save your life, but the sooner you get treated for a heart attack, the less damage there will be to your heart muscle.

The institute provides the following list of heart attack warning signs:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, such as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center or left side of the chest that can be mild or strong. This discomfort or pain often lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, which may occur with or before chest pain.
  • Nausea, vomiting, light-headedness or sudden dizziness, or breaking out in a cold sweat.

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