A new way of screening drugs using samples of beating heart tissue has been pioneered by UK scientists.
The technique could lead to safer treatments while avoiding risky human trials or distressing animal experiments, it is claimed.
Unwanted side effects affecting the heart are a major cause of many new drugs failing. But often they can only be detected once a drug is being tested on patients in clinical trials.
The new "work-loop assay" screening system pioneered at the University of Coventry uses a specimen of heart muscle stimulated by pulses of electricity to make it expand and contract.
Experimental drugs are added to the tissue to see what effect they have on the muscle contraction, which mirrors the beating of a patient's heart.
Dr Helen Maddock, who spent almost 10 years developing the technique, said: "I'm delighted that our research is at a stage where we can confidently say the work-loop assay we've created is the world's only clinically relevant in vitro human model of cardiac contractility. It has the potential to shave years off the development of successful drugs for a range of treatments.
"Both the pharma industry and regulators recognise that existing methods of assessing the contractility of the heart are fraught with problems, so we're incredibly excited to be able to introduce a new way to accurately determine the safety of drugs in respect of the heart without the need to test on humans or animals."
Heart muscle used in the research was supplied by a tissue bank in Coventry.
A spin-out company, InoCardia Ltd, has been set up by the University of Coventry to commercialise the screening process. It has already received £250,000 from the Warwickshire-based investment firm Mercia Fund Management.
Mark Payton, managing director of Mercia Fund Management, said: "InoC ardia... offers the potential for early screening of compounds in development without the initial need for extensive animal trials.
"Through a markedly accelerated drug development process, this will decrease timelines to drug development, and as a consequence greatly reduce the cost of new drug development. The end beneficiary will, of course, be patients receiving novel treatments sooner."