A treatment used for heart disease, which many doctors consider to be fringe medicine, has unexpectedly showed promise in a new study, sparking debate about the findings.

The study tested chelation, infusions that may help remove calcium from hardened arteries around the heart. While chelation has long been used to treat lead poisoning, its safety for heart disease remains unproven.

The version used for heart disease involves a different drug that does not have government approval to be used in the United States. However, alternative medicine practitioners have been ordering it custom-mixed from compounding pharmacies.

Meanwhile, the usage of chelation to treat heart disease has been facing controversy. Not only did the study took 10 years, but it also cost taxpayers $30 million, involved several doctors convicted of felonies, and some custom-mixed medicine were ordered from New England Compounding Center, the same specialty pharmacy linked to the growing meningitis outbreak.

Even though more than 100,000 Americans use chelation, treatments can cost from $90 to $150 apiece and are not covered by insurance. Chelation is sometimes used in place of established treatments, including cholesterol-lowering medicines, as well as stents to open clogged arteries.

Researchers from the American Heart Association conference in Los Angeles announced Sunday that a chelation mixture tested in a study of 1,708 heart attack survivors led to fewer complications. Four years after treatment, 26.5 percent had heart-related problems, versus 30 percent of those using dummy infusions. But, 17 percent of participants dropped out before the study ended and only 65 percent had all 40 infusions they were supposed to get. Consequently, the incomplete results make it unclear whether the benefits from chelation could have occurred by chance alone. Also, the results have not been published in a medical journal or vetted by independent scientists, making doctors wearier.

“The study in my view is inconclusive,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, the Cleveland Clinic’s cardiovascular chief who had no role in the research. “Chelation has been practiced by physicians on the extreme fringes of medicine and many involved in this study offer a variety of other quick therapies. I’m really worried about harm coming to the public. Patients should not seek this therapy on the basis of this trial."

Many lead researchers believe chelation treatment cannot be recommended yet without further research.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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