Researchers at The University of Manchester have shown in laboratory studies that a naturally occurring protein called IL-1ra protects brain cells from injury and death.
The team, led by Professor Nancy Rothwell and Dr Pippa Tyrrell, have now reported the results of the first small trial of IL-1ra in patients, which are published in the Journal of Neurology and Neuropsychiatry.
"The study was designed to test if IL-1ra is safe in stroke patients and showed promising results," said Professor Rothwell, a world-renowned neuroscientist based in the University's Faculty of Life Sciences.
"The trial was a definite step in the right direction and may lead to a full trial to test its effectiveness next year."
Stroke is the UK's third biggest killer and the biggest cause of disability, affecting 100,000 people each year. It accounts for 6.5% of total NHS and social services expenditure and there are currently no treatments available.
Stroke occurs when vessels supplying blood to the brain become blocked and the brain is starved of oxygen. A core area of the brain dies within minutes but it is the threatened area around this core that the treatment may help to salvage.
"The protein targets the molecule that causes inflammation and dramatically reduces the inflammatory markers," said Professor Rothwell, MRC Research Professor and the University's Vice-President for Research.
"In the laboratory we were able to reduce damage to the cells by as much as half; if we could cut cell damage in patients by even a third it would be a very significant step forward in treating stroke."
IL-1ra (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist) is the naturally occurring antagonist of the protein interleukin-1 (IL-1), which the same scientists have shown to cause damage to the brain in experimental stroke and b rain injury.
IL-1ra is currently used to manage rheumatoid arthritis but, as a long-term treatment, the cost is prohibitive. With stroke, the drug would have to be administered within the first few critical hours through an infusion over a short period of time, perhaps as little as three days.
Dr Tyrrell, who is based at Hope Hospital in Salford, added: "Stroke is a devastating condition that affects many thousand of people so the development of any effective treatment would have enormous benefits to the patients I see and to their families.
"We still have quite a long way to go before we can be sure if this will be an effective treatment but the results so far are very encouraging."
The trial was co-funded by the University, the charity Research into Ageing and the Medical Research Council.
Dr Lorna Layward, Research Manager of Research into Ageing, a special trust within Help the Aged, said: "This is an exciting breakthrough in which we're extremely proud to have played a part.
"There is a desperate need for treatment of stroke, which has a devastating impact for those affected and their families.
"While this treatment is still some way off being available to patients, it is definitely a huge step in the right direction."