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Every year an estimated 17 million people die of heart attacks or strokes around the world, but that could change very soon.Scientists have developed a simple blood test that may be able to predict whether a person is at high risk of suffering from a heart attack two weeks in advance, according to Medical News Today.
“The ability to diagnose an imminent heart attack has long been considered the holy grail of cardiovascular medicine,” Dr. Eric Topol, the study’s principal investigator, said in a press release. “This has been a tremendous collaboration… which has resulted in an important discovery that may help to change the future of cardiovascular medicine.”
The test came as a result of a study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, that measured Circulating Endothelial Cells (CECs) in 50 patients who went to emergency rooms with heart attacks and 44 healthy volunteers. Endothelial cells form the lining of the inside of blood vessels.
Researchers found that CECs from heart attack patients were more plentiful, abnormally large, misshapen and often appeared with multiple nuclei, indicating that CECs are promising biomarkers for the prediction of obstructive coronary artery disease.
A heart attack occurs when an area of plaque ruptures in an artery, forming a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the heart and damages heart tissue. Cardiologists believe that an attack typically commences days before the formation of the clot, when the walls of blood vessels weaken and the abnormal endothelial cells begin to cluster together.
Currently physicians can easily detect a heart attack that’s already underway or has just occurred. But every year tens of thousands of patients walk away from the doctor’s office after having passed a stress test only to suffer a devastating heart attack within a few weeks.
If further studies prove the blood test is reliable, doctors would be able to monitor patients who are at risk of obstructive coronary artery disease and intervene – through prescribing lifestyle changes, medicine or surgery – when necessary, thereby preventing their patients from having a heart attack.
Dr. Richard Rodeheffer, a cardiovascular specialist at the Mayo Clinic, expressed cautious optimism for this test.
“Holy Grail is a bit over the top,” he said, because “no test is 100 per cent sensitive and 100 per cent specific.” Nevertheless he said that a biomarker test that could accurately identify those at a higher risk of having a heart attack “would be very useful.”
The success of this potentially revolutionary test will depend, according to Rodeheffer, on its accuracy in the populations of interest–that is, people at a high risk of having coronary artery disease. Rodeheffer noted that this population includes “50 per cent of people over 60 years of age.”
The authors of the study hope to have a commercial test developed in the next year or two.