A new study by University of Calgary researchers could lead to new treatments for patients with heart damage.

In a study published in the medical journal, Immunity, researchers say they are the first to discover cells in a fluid surrounding the heart that helped heal an injured heart in mice. The same cells were found in humans.

“What we’ve discovered is a new immune cell that resides in this cavity that surrounds your heart, called the pericardial cavity,” said Dr. Justin Deniset.

“What we found is that these cells play a beneficial role in helping the heart heal after a heart attack.”

Doctors say this is the first time cells with healing properties have been discovered in the fluid.

“We always knew that this pericardial cavity existed but we never knew what role it played after an injury such as a heart attack,” said Deniset.

Researchers are hopeful the discovery will lead to faster recoveries for people who have suffered heart attacks.  They must now look into whether the molecules can be packaged into medicines and delivered into patients, said Deniset.

“We are very excited. I think what we’ve done here is we have opened up a brand new area of research that we’ve completely forgotten about or hadn’t thought about about before,” he said.

The cells are contained in fluid that is usually removed during heart surgery and discarded.

“We just never thought that there was anything useful in the fluid surrounding the heart,” said Dr. Paul Fedak, a cardiac surgeon.

“We know it has an important lubricating function. There have been immune cells that have been found in there before, but we always thought it was as a result of inflammation of the heart.”

Fedak hopes the groundbreaking research will lead to a treatment that involves saving the fluid from patients, creating more cells and injecting it back into the body to prevent scarring and speed healing.

“If we can harness the potential of these cells, it’s really important for patients and we may be able to prevent heart failure,” said Fedak, the incoming director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

The study was led by Denesit, Fedak and Dr. Paul Kubes, director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Funding for imaging equipment used in the study came from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the Libin and Snyder families. The research took less than three years to complete.

“I’ve been involved in biomedical research since I was 19-years-old,” said Fedak. “To me, this is the one of the most fascinating, most exciting, most out-of-the-box studies that I’ve ever participated in, so I’m really excited about it.”