Scientists have taken a major step forward in treating heart disease. New research shows that adding the licensed blood-thinning drug clopidogrel to standard therapy for patients experiencing acute chest pains reduces the risk of deaths, heart attacks and strokes by nearly 20 percent. This study, the results of which were announced on Monday at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Orlando, Fla., indicates that the drug could spare the lives of thousands of Americans each year.

In a study of more than 12,500 patients in 28 countries, team leader Salim Yusuf of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and his colleagues examined the effects of clopidogrel on a life-threatening condition known as acute coronary syndrome. Half of the participants received a daily dose of clopidogrel in addition to standard therapy, and the other half were given standard therapy alone. Heart attacks in the clopidogrel group, the team found, were reduced by 23 percent, and strokes by 15 percent.

Clopidogrel, which is marketed by Sanofi-Synthlabo as Plavix and by Bristol-Myers Squibb as Iscover, has been used for some time to help prevent blood clots after angioplasty, but the new results may make it standard for all heart attack patients. "This is the best news since aspirin," Christopher P. Cannon, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, remarked to the New York Times. "This is really a super aspirin that lives up to its name."