Modern medicine has gotten progressively better at treating heart attacks. But there is a subset of people who can be saved only temporarily, because when blood flow returns it causes heart muscle cells to swell, leading to irreversible damage that will likely kill the person anyway.

These reperfusion injuries have been at the forefront of treating patients near death since the turn of the 21st century.

But an ongoing study in Sweden proposes that by cooling the organ itself, like one ices a swollen joint, it could limit the damage – and potentially save lives.

“We have demonstrated in 10 patients that is technically possible to cool part of the heart safely during a heart attack,” said Luuk Otterspoor, the cardiologist who received his doctorate related to the work.

The method tried on the 10 patients at Catharina hospital in Eindhoven involved 20 minutes of additional surgery, leading to potentially years of additional life.

The team injects a fluid just past the closure in the coronary artery, which cools the tissue to between 39 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit. After 10 minutes, they apply the angioplasty balloon to clear the vessel – and then cool the surrounding tissue for another 10 minutes. Finally, they place a stent in the location of the constriction.

“By cooling the part of the heart that is affected by a clogged or constricted coronary artery, there is less damage to the heart muscle after the constriction is opened up,” said Otterspoor. “We believe that this can ultimately reduce the impact of the heart attack and damage to the heart by some 20 to 30 percent.”

Cooling injury sites has been an avenue of research in several medical disciplines. For instance, hypothermia has been used in trauma cases, like that of spinal cord injuries or in people who have experienced clinical death.