WASHINGTON - Injecting a certain gene into cardiac muscle has been shown in animal studies to help a weakened heart beat more strongly, scientists said on Wednesday.
If shown to be safe and effective in people, experts said the procedure might one day replace the need for electronic pacemakers, though that knowledge is years away.
"This development heralds a new era of gene therapy, where genes are used not only to correct a deficiency disorder, but actually to convert one type of cell into another to treat disease," said lead author Eduardo Marban, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.
It is the first time that a heart cell has been preprogrammed in a living animal in order to cure a disease, said Mr Marban.
Gene therapy has long been viewed as a promising but risky field, particularly after early attempts to use it in people in the 1990s showed it could be dangerous and even fatal.
Mr Marban said the use of a mild virus as a delivery vector for the gene should reduce concerns that typically arise in gene therapy, such as the potential for a deadly immune reaction or the possibility that the process could lead to the formation of a tumour, but acknowledged that more research is needed.
The study in the journal Science Translation Medicine details a therapy in which a gene known as TBX18 is injected into an area the size of a peppercorn in the pumping chambers of the heart.
The gene converts some of the normal heart cells into another type, called sinoatrial cells, which take over the heart's pumping duties.
"In essence, we create a new sinoatrial node in the part of the heart that ordinarily spreads the impulse but does not originate it," he told reporters on a conference call to discuss the research.
"The newly created node then takes over as the functional pacemaker." The minimally invasive approach was tried in pigs with a condition known as complete heart block, a severe condition in which the heart's electrical system is impaired and produces an irregular heartbeat.