CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- When it comes to treating heart attack patients, a folk medicine may lead to better outcomes.

According to a release, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found a potential way to improve heart function after a heart attack involving a drug extracted from plants.

The researchers found that by blocking a particular enzyme after a heart attack, there was repair to the damage to the heart in lab mice.

They were using a drug called harmine, which is found in certain plants and has been used for a long time for medicinal and ritual purposes. One plant that contains this drug is the Syrian rue.

While more study is needed, the researchers think the underlying approach of blocking the enzyme may result in a promising avenue to improve patient outcomes.

“Our findings show that investigating the signals controlling normal heart growth can lead to new therapeutic targets to unlock cardiac regeneration,” said Matthew J. Wolf, MD, PhD, the co-director of UVA Health’s cardiovascular genetics program. “We hope our research can identify new adjuvant medications that can be added to standard care when someone has a heart attack. Our goals are to help improve heart function and reduce the chances of developing heart failure.”

The release says the new findings came from attempts to make the body replace damaged cells that are responsible for making the heart muscle contract.

In adults, such specialized cells, called cardiomyocytes, are rarely replaced, so researchers have been looking for a way to cause the body to make more of them.

In order to do this, researchers wanted to block an enzyme called DYRK1a, either by shutting down the gene responsible for producing it or by giving harmine to inhibit its function.

The release says both approaches show the desired result in the mice, leading to the production of cardiomyocytes and improving the function of the left ventricle of the heart.

This suggests that targeting DYRK1a may improve patient outcomes following a heart attack.

The researchers also noted that harmine could have an effect on multiple organs, and if given for too long a time frame, might cause cancer by fostering uncontrolled cell growth. Because of this, they suggest further research into alternatives to inhibit the enzyme’s function.

The scientists will next attempt to remove DYRK1a from cardiomyocytes.

These findings have been published in the scientific journal Circulation Research.