A new class of drugs that could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths from cancer has been hailed as the biggest breakthrough since statins.

Scientists said that the discovery ushered in "a new era of therapeutics" that worked in an entirely different way to conventional treatment.

As well as cutting the risk of a heart attack by a quarter, the drugs halved the chances of dying from cancer and protected against gout and arthritis.

Half of heart attacks occur in people who do not have high cholesterol. Now scientists have found that the new anti-inflammatory drugs can protect against a host of conditions - with a "really dramatic effect" on cancer deaths.

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The drug canakinumab cut repeat heart attacks by one quarter when given by injection every three months. Statins cut the risk by around 15 per cent.

Experts said the findings had "far-reaching" implications for the people who suffer a heart attack. And they called for urgent trials to further examine the impact of the medication on cancer.

Professor Paul Ridker of Harvard Medical School, presenting his findings at the European Society of Cardiology congress in Barcelona, said the drugs opened up a "third front" in the war on heart disease.

The landmark study tracked 10,000 heart attack victims who were given the anti-inflammatory over four years. Typically, around a quarter of survivors will go on to have another event within five years, despite taking statins.

Those given the new treatment had a 24 per cent reduction in heart attacks and a 17 per cent fall in angina, while cancer deaths fell by 51 per cent among those on the highest dose.

Speaking at the world's biggest-gathering of heart experts, Harvard
scientists said the approach promised to "usher in a new era" of treatment.

Ridker, from the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said: "In my lifetime, I've gotten to see three broad eras of preventative cardiology. In the first, we recognised the importance of diet, exercise and smoking cessation. In the second, we saw the tremendous value of lipid-lowering drugs such as statins. Now, we're cracking the door open on the third era."

The findings were presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The cost of the new treatment - which works by blocking part of the immune system called interleukin-1 - is currently around NZ$71,000 annually, compared to just NZ$35 for statins.

But experts say the price would come down if widely adopted. And they said the cost would be offset by the millions of dollars saved from not having to perform heart bypasses and other major forms of surgery.

Leading British medics hailed the findings as "exciting" and "incredibly important". Dr Derek Connolly, a cardiologist at Birmingham City Hospital, said: "The drug is likely to be given to patients alongside statins in a 'twin attack'. You need lots of bricks to build a wall - this is another brick in the wall."

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Nearly 200,000 people are hospitalised due to heart -attacks every year in the UK.

"The findings suggest that drugs such as canakinumab could be given along with cholesterol-lowering drugs to treat survivors and further reduce their risk of another heart attack."

Novartis, which produces the drug, said it intended to apply for a licence for the treatment for heart attack victims, and to embark on a trial to test how the drugs protected against cancer.