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A synthesised compound which is also found in bear bile could help people who have suffered a heart attack, according to research from Imperial College London.

The manufactured drug, called Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has already been used to decrease cholesterol, dissolve gallstones and treat a condition called Obstetric Cholestasis, which affects around one in 200 pregnant women in the UK and is linked to a higher risk of arrhythmia and sudden death in the foetus. UDCA is also present in bear bile, used to make many traditional Chinese medicines.

The new study suggests it could also potentially treat abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia, both in the foetus and in people who have suffered a heart attack.

Laboratory tests suggested that UDCA acts on non-beating pathological heart cells called myofibroblasts, which interfere with how electrical signals travel across the heart.

These cells are found in the foetal heart, disappearing shortly after birth. Sometimes, they reappear in patients that have had a heart attack, when they are involved in laying down scar tissue.

The study found that these cells disrupt the transmission of electrical signals that control the heart's rhythm.

The study demonstrated that UDCA can prevent arrhythmia by altering the electrical properties of myofibroblasts

Dr Julia Gorelik, the study's senior author, said: "These findings are exciting because the treatments we have now are largely ineffective at preventing arrhythmia in patients who develop an abnormal heart rhythm after a heart attack."

"Our results from the lab suggest that UDCA could help the heart muscle conduct electrical signals more normally. We're hoping to set up a clinical trial to test whether these results translate to patients with heart failure."

The study is the result of a long-term collaboration between two Imperial research groups, headed by Dr Juila Gorelik, at the National Heart and Lung Institute and Professor Catherine Williamson at the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology.

The study was funded by Action Medical Research, the Wellcome Trust, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the Imperial Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre, which was established by a grant from the National Institute of Health Research.