Damaged hearts can be repaired using genetic "master switches" that convert scar tissue into muscle, research has shown.
The technique, demonstrated in mice, could lead to new treatments for heart attack survivors in the next decade, say scientists.
Scar tissue left by a heart attack can weaken the heart, making it incapable of pumping blood efficiently and leading to heart failure.
The debilitating condition, suffered by 900,000 people in the UK and 23m worldwide, causes exhaustion with even the slightest physical effort and may ultimately contribute to death.
Several groups of scientists are investigating the use of stem cells, immature cells with more than one development pathway, to rebuild scar-ridden hearts. But the new research points to a simpler method of turning scar tissue into functioning heart muscle without stem cell transplants.
Scientists in the US used microRNAs, small genetic molecules that serve as master regulators controlling the activity of multiple genes.
They identified a particular combination of three microRNAs that appeared to convert scar tissue cells called fibroblasts into heart muscle cells.
When the microRNAs were delivered into fibroblasts in the laboratory, the reprogrammed cells began to transform into the cardiomyocytes that make up heart muscle.
The same conversion was achieved in living mice, indicating that it had therapeutic potential.
Lead scientist Professor Victor Dzau, from Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina, said: "Researchers have tried various approaches, including the use of stem cells, to regenerate damaged heart muscle tissue.
"This is the first study to use microRNA, which are small molecules that control gene expression, to reprogramme fibroblasts into heart muscle cells. We have not only shown evidence of this tissue regeneration in cell cultures, but also in mice."
He added: "This is a significant finding with many therapeutic implications.
"If you can do this in the heart, you can do it in the brain, the kidneys and other tissues. This is a whole new way of regenerating tissue."
The team, whose results are reported in the journal Circulation Research, now plans to see whether microRNAs can repair damaged hearts in larger animals. If these studies prove successful, human trials will follow.
Prof Dzau believes microRNA injections could prove a viable treatment for heart attack patients in years to come.
"If everything comes to fruition, I think we will see this as a therapy in the next decade," he said. "Conceivably, we'll use it to regenerate hearts damaged by heart attacks, avoiding heart failure and saving lives."
Eat yourself to a healthy heart with these cardiovascular-friendly foods.
Oats contain beta glucan, a soluble fibre that helps reduce cholesterol levels, especially LDL (bad cholesterol), which damage the heart.
Green leafy vegetables like spinach, fenugreek, pak choy, radish leaves, lettuce are known to reduce the risk of heart disease as they are rich sources of folic acid, magnesium, calcium and potassium - the essential minerals for keeping the heart functioning properly. Studies have shown that one daily serving of green leafy vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease by 11%.
Soy is a healthy protein alternative to red meat, as it has a low saturated fat content, no cholesterol and even increases your HDL 'good' cholesterol, which is good news for your heart.
Regular consumption of tomatoes is known to reduce the risk of heart disease, as they contain a rich source of vitamin K, which help prevent hemorrhages.
Wholegrains contain high levels of vitamin E, iron, magnesium and a host of anti-oxidants, which are all beneficial to the heart as they help reduce blood pressure.
Apples contain guercetin, a photochemical containing anti-inflammatory properties, vital for keeping blood clots at bay, which can lead to heart attacks.
Almonds, when eaten in moderation, are known to lower cholesterol levels as they contain monosaturate fats (the 'good' fats), as well as vitamin B17, vitamin E and minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc.
Red wine (when drank in moderation) can be good for the heart as it contains a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol, which helps prevent damage to blood vessels, reduces "bad" cholesterol and prevents blood clots.