Working on rabbit hearts, a University of Michigan team have found that taking in cocaine causes a reaction called a complement cascade. This occurs when there is a jump in the body's production of complement proteins. These proteins normally form in response to invading microorganisms, and build up on cell membranes causing them to break apart.
In a sense, the body is seeing the drug as a foreign body, or germ. When cocaine is introduced, the complement proteins build up on the body's own cells, causing massive tissue damage.
Michael Davies of St George's Hospital said the research could explain why some cocaine users develop heart failure, where the heart becomes floppy and pumps blood less efficiently.
The chest pains which many cocaine users complain of is due to the drug sending coronary arteries into spasm, researchers say.Researchers say cocaine is now so widespread that cocaine users presenting with chest pains are beginning to drain hospital resources. One drug abuse expert at St Mary's Hospital in London said he suspected up to 10 per cent of people reporting to hospital with chest pains had used cocaine.