A Blood Test To Predict Heart Attacks?

Predicting those at high risk of a heart attack could now be as easy as running a blood test, according to scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California. A research team there has identified endothelial cells as a culprit of heart attacks, and devised a test called the High-Definition Circulating Endothelial Cell (HD-CEC) to measure that risk.

Endothelial cells are found in arteries after heart attacks, and they circulate around the body when a build-up of plaque makes arteries rupture. The test, which requires just a single milliliter of blood, uses multi-color imagery and computer-assisted calculations to spot dangerous cells, and has now been published in Physical Biology journal.

The HD-CEC test, say the researchers, is more effective than the CellSearch test. CellSearch is commercially available test used to counting tumor cells in cancer patients' blood.

"Our assay effectively analyzes millions of cells, which is more work but guarantees that you are analyzing all of the potential cells," said Peter Kuhn, the scientist who co-authored the study. "Via the CellSearch methodology, it is possible that the important cells you wish to study could be lost."

Scientists now plan to study patients who experience acute chest pain, something which can but does not always mean a heart attack is imminent. The idea is to try and figure out whether symptoms such as chest pain mean they are genuinely at risk of going on to experience cardiac arrest. This means the blood test could make all the difference when deciding how seriously to take an otherwise fairly-common symptom.

The CDC predicts that 715,000 Americans have a heart attack each year, with coronary disease estimated to cost the US $108.9 billion each year too. And heart attack symptoms can differ in men and women, with women less likely to experience chest pain, says the American Heart Association. Instead, women may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest, upper back, or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting or extreme fatigue.

Now that the scientists have sold the test to Epic Sciences, the challenge now is to make sure it becomes commercially available and actually benefits the thousands of Americans at risk.

Image: Getty