The treatment involves the Harvard-developed drug Endostatin, which has been shown to be remarkably potent against cancer in mice, but has yet to be tested on people.
Now, the same team that discovered Endostatin has found that in mice, at least, the drug may also greatly slow the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
The research raises the possibility that a new category of drugs, blood vessel inhibitors, may be useful weapons against both heart disease and cancer, the two most prominent diseases in the industrialized world.
A team led by Dr. Judah Folkman of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston reported the development in Tuesday's issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
Folkman pioneered the study of angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. Endostatin is a natural protein that blocks blood-vessel formation. Without a blood supply, cancer in lab animals often stops growing and even disappears.
Heart disease also involves unwanted tissue growth - the accumulation of cholesterol, blood cells and smooth-muscle cells in lumps known as plaque. Plaque growing in the arteries of the heart is the chief cause of heart attacks and angina pain.
Experts have long noticed that plaque often has its own network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries.
"By blocking them, perhaps we can alter the progression of the disease," said Dr. Karen Moulton, who conducted the experiment in Folkman's lab.
In the 16-week experiment, the researchers tested Endostatin on 73 mice that were fed a high-cholesterol diet. They found that those on the drug averaged 85 percent less plaque buildup in their aortas than did untreated animals.
"It's a very exciting concept," said Dr. Stephen Epstein of Washington Hospital Center in Washington. "If the data can be validated by other labs, it represents a whole new paradigm for strategies to prevent atherosclerosis and its complications."