London: Researchers have found that inflammation plays a major role in the development of coronary heart disease.

Two international genetic studies of 300,000 people by Cambridge University and University College London pinpointed a specific protein.

The finding suggests that anti-inflammatory drugs currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis could also be used to reduce atherosclerosis - the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries.

If the treatment proves a success, thousands of lives could be saved each year, with high-risk patients taking the drug as a preventative measure, a daily reported.

One such drug, tocilizumab, is already prescribed to sufferers from rheumatoid arthritis.

Experts have long suspected that inflammation plays a role in heart disease, but until now no clear link has been found.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which co-funded the studies, said: "These studies provide very strong evidence that new medicines which reduce inflammation could be a powerful tool in helping to combat heart disease."

The new research was published online in The Lancet medical journal.