A landmark gene therapy that could potentially boost a person's cardiac function has been found to yield promising results.

The American Heart Association says an estimated 5.7 million people in the United States are affected by heart failure, in which the damaged or weakened cardiovascular muscle can no longer pump blood the way it's supposed to.

Even though the illness is taking a toll on millions of patients, some experts say there has been very few progress toward finding a cure.

Dr. Justine Lachmann of Winthrop-University Hospital in New York said current interventions are successful in extending the lives of patients by altering the bodily chemicals which influence the heart.

Unfortunately, long-term consequences from these interventions are "grim" because the structure of the heart may be permanently injured.

Now, Lachmann believes the new treatment would be the "ultimate method" to reconstruct weakened heart tissue so that it can function mechanically once again.

Reversing Damage

The report took advantage of gene therapy to reverse established cardiac damage.

Dr. H. Kirk Hammond of the VA San Diego Healthcare System and his colleagues examined 56 patients diagnosed with symptomatic heart failure, most of which whose cardiac function were weakened by up to 40 percent.

The treatment requires "gene transfer" -- a harmless virus transports a specific gene into cardiac cells. Once it arrives, the gene creates AC6, a protein whose levels are dangerously low in patients with heart failure.

Several study participants received gene therapy, while others only received a placebo. Researchers followed the patients for a year.

Hammond and his team found that the AC6 gene therapy appeared to positively affect cardiac function. As the dose that patients received increase, the benefits became higher as well.

In fact, the heart's left ventricular (LV) function was boosted, causing it to perform the way it should. The team also found that the ejection fraction also improved. Ejection fraction measures how well the LV pumped with each contraction.

After the study, patients who received gene therapy remained healthier. Researchers said 29 percent of placebo participants were still taken to the hospital for heart failure after follow-up, but only 9.5 percent of the gene therapy patients did so.

Hope For Heart Failure Patients

Despite the positive results, researchers said further research must be conducted.

"Larger trials are warranted to assess the safety and efficacy of AC6 gene transfer for patients with heart failure," researchers wrote.

Nevertheless, experts believe the treatment offers hope for heart failure patients.

Cardiologist Dr. Howard Levite said the trial opens the possibility that a non-device and non-drug treatment would accomplish positive results. He said each of the study's findings signify a major progress in the management of heart failure.

The findings of the study are featured in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

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