New research suggests that microscopic drones could be used to sneak in and repair damaged arteries to prevent heart attacks before they happen.

The "drones" are actually nanoparticles that are designed to target hard plaques in the arteries made from fat cholesterol and calcium - a condition known as atherosclerosis. Measuring 1,000 times smaller than the tip of a human hair, these nanoparticles - made from a dissolving plastic-like material - could lead to a breakthrough in treating heart disease.

Although current treatments for atherosclerosis exist, heart (cardiovascular) disease remains the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It results in one out of every four deaths.

In this latest study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the nanotechnology was successful in mouse models, and researchers hope it will be just as effective in human trials.

"This is the first example of a targeted nanoparticle technology that reduces atherosclerosis in an animal model," lead researcher Dr. Omid Farokhzad, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a statement.

Once they hone in on the clogged artery, the nanoparticles release a drug derived from a natural protein called annexin A1 that repairs inflammation damage in the body. During lab experiments, advanced atherosclerosis in mice was significantly repaired after five weeks of treatment with the nanoparticles. Specifically, plaques were reduced and stabilized, meaning fragments were less likely to break off and clog blood vessels. The scientists also observed a reduction in reactive oxygen species (ROS), highly destructive molecules that damage cells.

According to Farokhzad, this nanomedicine doesn't just have the potential to treat heart disease in humans.

"The inflammation resolving targeted nanoparticles have shown exciting potential not only for the potential treatment of atherosclerosis as described here, but also other therapeutic areas including wound repair, for example," he added.

Although, he and his colleagues are quick to note that further research is needed to test this drone technology, as mice, even with atherosclerosis, don't experience heart attacks. For future human trials, the team plans to fine tune the particles to optimize drug delivery and to package them with more powerful anti-inflammatory drugs.

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