The best that doctors have been able to do is to promptly open up the clogged artery and limit the damage with drugs.
But one day, there may be a way to get that damaged heart to grow its own brand-new muscle tissue. How? By using the patient's own cardiac stem cells.
This week doctors in Los Angeles have given a heart attack patient an infusion of stem cells grown from his own heart muscle.
It's a first, as CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports.
It was mid-May when 39-year-old Ken Milles was blindsided by a serious heart attack - and the doctor's bad news.
Milles said, "When he told me that there was permanent damage and that the duration of my life was reduced - that freaked me out."
Especially since the construction company employee has a wife and two teen-aged boys.
So he volunteered be one of 24 recent heart attack patients in a cutting-edge clinical trial at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute - becoming the first person ever to get an infusion of his own heart stem cells.
"We seek to actually reverse the injury that has been caused by the heart attack, by re-growing new heart muscle to at least partially replace the scar that's formed," says Dr. Eduardo Marban of Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.
Doctors are using stem cells, the body's master cells, because they can transform into different kinds of tissue.
Marban says, "These cells that we're putting in come from the heart itself, and are predestined to generate heart muscle and blood vessels."
Other types of stem cells, like bone marrow, have been studied for heart repair, but with mixed results. Animal studies indicate heart stem cells do a better job. The problem is: the heart has so few stem cells that researchers have to grow more.
Using local anesthesia, doctors first send a catheter with little pincers to snip out bits of healthy heart tissue. They're sent to the laboratory where they're coaxed to manufacture as many as 25,000,000 stem cells.
In a trailblazing procedure new cells grow spontaneously from the specimens eventually forming into clusters called "cardio-spheres" that can even start beating in the dish. In 4 to 6 weeks, there are millions of stem cells.
A few days ago, doctors went back up an artery to deposit Ken Milles's own laboratory-grown stem and support cells into the damaged area of his heart -- hoping it'll repair itself and pump more blood.
"If this works, it's gonna help so many people. It's gonna change everything," said Milles.
In 6 months, doctors will know if Ken's heart has begun to repair itself. Clinical trials should be completed in three to four years.