Doctors claim a new drug for patients who have suffered heart failure can cut the number of deaths, improve their life quality and reduce the likelihood of them being readmitted to hospital.

LCZ696, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, could hit the market as early as the end of this year.   Trials of the pill were so successful that they were stopped prematurely in March.

The results will be released officially in Barcelona today at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress, which has attracted 29,000 participants, including many cardiologists from Singapore.

LCZ696 was able to more than double the survival of heart failure patients, compared to the best current treatment for heart failure.

Dr Milton Packer of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, who presented the results to the media yesterday, said the significantly superior drug "has created an ethical mandate for its use in all patients with chronic heart failure".   He said the new drug can reduce symptoms and physical limitations in heart failure patients so they "felt better and could do more".

The clinical trial involving more than 8,400 patients from 47 countries was started in December 2009.

By March this year it was already found to be clearly and significantly superior to the current drug enalapril - which has been in existence for the past 25 years. The new drug has a double action - it reduces the strain on the failing heart while promoting heart muscle recovery. It also has fewer side effects.

Dr David Sim of the National Heart Centre (NHC) was the principal investigator for the Singapore arm of the trial, which involved more than 30 severe heart failure patients. He described the new drug as "a breakthrough in the treatment of heart failure".

Associate Professor Carolyn Lam of the National University Hospital, who led her institution's participation, told The Sunday Times: "Heart failure is the top cause for hospital admissions among the elderly."

Dr Sim added that nationally, heart failure accounts for about 6,000 hospitalisations a year. While the majority of patients are in their 70s and 80s, the 1,000 patients seen at the NHC are mostly about 20 years younger.

He said: "It is a debilitating disease and roughly half would die within five years of diagnosis."

Heart failure affects 26 million people worldwide with treatment costing US$108 billion (S$135 billion) a year.   Hospitalisation accounts for the lion's share. Patients with heart failure are easily exhausted, so that even short walks of 50m can make them breathless. Because of their frequent hospital admission, they add significantly to the bed crunch that Singapore's public hospitals are facing.

Dr Packer said the new drug's effect was consistent across all ethnic groups.   There were no sub-groups which did not benefit from the drug, which is taken as a pill twice a day, he said.

Novartis hopes to get approval for the drug, which has yet to be given a commercial name, in the United States by the end of this year, and in Europe by early next year.   The five-day ESC Congress is one of the top heart meetings in the world and has attracted large delegations from Japan, the United States and Australia.

Source: The Straits Times Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission