updated 9/4/2006 2:06:24 PM ET 2006-09-04T18:06:24

A new three-in-one pill to treat heart disease could save millions worldwide, said experts Monday at the World Congress of Cardiology. The so-called "polypill" would target developing countries, where rates of heart disease are climbing dramatically.

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The pill would be packed with aspirin, statins and ACE inhibitors — the three drugs known to prevent recurrent heart disease. "Potentially, millions of lives could be saved worldwide by this," said Dr. Sidney Smith, of the World Heart Federation. "These therapies are known to reduce mortality by up to 50 percent or more," said Smith.

The polypill would work by reducing future crippling events such as heart attacks and strokes. The World Heart Federation is currently working to promote this initiative, and believes that a pill could be ready in the next year or two. It would first be tested in Spain before being exported to other markets, such as China.

Every year, approximately 17.5 million people die of heart disease. Nearly 80 percent of heart attacks occur in low and middle-income countries, making the need for a cheap and applicable solution critical. According to the World Heart Federation, a polypill would cost a fifth of what currently available therapies cost.

It would also be far easier for patients to take. "People have issues with taking four or five drugs," said Dr. Sania Nishtar, president of Heartfile. "They would much rather take just one."

As envisioned by public health authorities, the polypill would be used in secondary prevention, i.e. in patients with a known history of heart disease. These patients are usually required to take a cocktail of pills, some of which they are expected to take indefinitely.

The pill might also make life easier for doctors. "I issue prescriptions for these three drugs so often that I might as well have a stamp when writing prescriptions for some of my heart patients," said Dr. Gabriel Steg, a cardiologist at Hopital Bilat in Paris, France.

Some experts, however, believe that this "one pill fits all" approach is misguided. "There are side effects from these drugs that makes monitoring of patients essential," said Dr. Freek Verheugt, chairman of the Heartcenter at the University Medical Center in Nejmegen, Holland.

Verheugt warns that the drugs to be included in the polypill have potentially serious side effects, such as gastric intestinal ulceration and bleeding, which would complicate its distribution in large populations. "Physicians need to monitor what they're giving their patients, to make sure that they tolerate it well," Verheugt said, explaining that simply handing out the polypill wouldn't necessarily lessen the burden on the public health system.

For Smith and others, the possibility of having an additional public health tool to fight cardiovascular disease makes the pursuit of the polypill worthwhile. "The fewer hoops we have to jump through to get to medicines, the more cost effective they will be," he said. "And the fewer medicines people need to take, the greater the possibility they will actually take them."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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