In the first human study of its kind, scientists used gene therapy that acts like a “homing” signal for stem cells to treat heart failure patients.

The treatment involves injecting a gene for a naturally occurring protein called SDF-1. The protein is secreted by cells and guides the movement of other cells.

The study is unique because researchers introduced the “homing” factor to enhance the body’s natural repair process. Usually, scientists extract cells, multiply them, then deliver them back to the patient.

SDF-1 calls stem cells to an injured area to heal damaged tissue. But SDF-1 sends the signal for only about a week after a heart attack.

Researchers wanted to see if they could get SDF-1 to last longer — and they did! Up to a year after treatment, people who got the gene therapy could walk farther on a six-minute walk test and reported improved quality of life. Exams also showed that their hearts were pumping better.

If future trials of SDF-1 yield positive results, scientists say the treatment could be available to heart failure patients in four to five years.

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