Millions of sufferers from heart disease have been given new hope by a study that shows the condition may be reversible.

Heart disease kills 114,000 people a year in the UK and affects 2.6 million overall. Previous research suggested it is a chronic, progressive disease that can be slowed but not reversed.

Now scientists have found that very intensive treatment with a powerful cholesterol-lowering drug may reduce the fatty deposits in the arteries. But the drug, Crestor, manufactured by Astra Zeneca and launched in 2003, has been the focus of controversy after evidence emerged that it could cause a muscle-wasting disease.

Heart disease is caused by the build up of fatty deposits, called atheroma. This narrows the arteries, increasing the risk of a blockage caused by a blood clot and triggering a heart attack. Previous treatment has focused on reducing the build up of atheroma by cutting the level of cholesterol.

Results of an international study released yesterday at the American College of Cardiology annual conference in Atlanta show that two years of treatment with Crestor, whose chemical name is rosuvastatin, cut cholesterol levels by over half and reduced the thickness of the atheroma by 6.8 per cent. The research found almost four out of five patients showed some form of reduction in atheroma.

Neal Uren, consultant cardiologist at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, said: "It suggests that very aggressive lowering of cholesterol can actually have an effect on the plaque [fatty deposits] in each of the blood vessels."

Dr Sarah Jarvis, of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "For the first time we have a drug that can not only halt the progression of the disease, but in the vast majority of patients, it actually showed the disease regress."

Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "This was extremely aggressive treatment that achieved a small reduction in atheroma ... What the study didn't do is show whether this was an important biological difference. It wasn't designed to test whether this drug regimen actually saves lives, so whilst the results sound promising and are likely to translate into a better outcome for patients, we still need further studies to confirm whether the regression demonstrated translates to fewer heart attacks."