British researchers have discovered that Nerve growth factor (NGF), a naturally occurring protein can protect against heart cell damage after a heart attack.
The protein was thought to act only on nerve cells in the body, but mounting evidence suggests it acts on heart muscle cells too.
A Bristol Heart Institute team tested NGF in rats and this had promising results, Cell Death and Differentiation journal reports.
They are hopeful that the treatment would also benefit humans, BBC reports.
Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the UK. In 2004, there were about 231,000 new heart attacks.
Heart attacks happen when one of the coronary arteries carrying oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked.
If the blood supply is cut off, a part of the heart muscle dies. And this can lead to complications such as heart failure.
Drugs are already available to help prevent and minimise the damage caused by a heart attack.
These include aspirin, which works by thinning the blood to improve blood flow, and clot-busting drugs called thrombolytics to dissolve clots in the artery.
Dr Costanza Emanueli and her colleagues found that injecting the gene for NGF into the hearts of rats having a heart attack stopped heart cells dying off.
Dr Emanueli said: "This is the first time that a pro-survival effect of NGF in the heart has been found.
"Some other growth factors are already used clinically to treat different diseases, and our study shows that NGF may be a novel way of protecting the heart from further damage following a heart attack."
Professor Jeremy Pearson of the British Heart Foundation, which provided funding for the work, said: "Dr Emanueli's research opens up the exciting and unexpected possibility of helping to repair damaged hearts by using a natural factor previously only thought to help nerves grow."