Researchers say “smart gene therapy” has the potential to prevent organ damage normally associated with heart attacks, according to researchers at Duke University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The treatment includes a therapeutic gene and a genetic “sensor” that recognizes and responds to the oxygen deprivation that follows the reduced blood flow from coronary artery disease and heart attack, the researchers said in a study released Monday.

“While drugs that can protect heart muscle are available, most patients barely make it to the hospital in time to take advantage of them,” said Victor J. Dzau, MD, chancellor of health affairs at Duke University, in a statement. He also is an active physician-scientist at Duke. The project was led by Dzau at Brigham before he joined Duke’s staff in July. It was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Edna Mandel Foundation.

The research demonstrated for the first time that such a process could work, Dzau said.

Dzau’s team developed a “therapeutic gene construct” that includes DNA sequences which detect oxygen deficiency and a therapeutic human gene (heme-oxygenase 1) that can protect cells, according to Dzau.

“This smart gene therapy could be administered preemptively to high- risk patients months before they develop a heart attack to provide them with long-term protection from ischemic (blood loss) injury,” Dzau added. “The minute this gene is switched on following a loss of blood flow, levels of the therapeutic protein rise rapidly, providing near-complete protection.”

When oxygen declines, the therapeutic gene is activated and protects the heart.

Findings also indicate the same program might be useful for stroke, shock and other conditions.

Research was conducted using rats.

The report was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.