In high-risk patients, the ideal cardiovascular gene therapy requires a strategy that provides long-term protection of myocardium against episodes of ischemic/reperfusion injury. We report the development of an efficient, long-lasting pre-emptive gene therapy strategy in a rat model of ischemic-reperfusion (I/R) injury of heart. At 6 weeks prior to myocardial injury, the human extracellular superoxide dismutase (Ec-SOD) gene was delivered by direct intramyocardial injections, using a recombinant adeno-associated virus vector. Significant myocardial protection was documented by the decrease in infarct size at 24 h post I/R, improved left ventricular function at 7 weeks postinjury, and enhanced long-term survival in the SOD treated group. This concept of preinjury delivery and 'pre-emptive' gene therapy via the expression of a secreted protein that renders paracrine therapeutic action can be an effective strategy for organ protection against future injury.