A simple and inexpensive test that can spot a heart attack waiting to happen could be available next year. Scientists say they are very close to the ‘holy grail of heart medicine’ – a rapid blood test that will pick up if someone is on the cusp of a heart attack. These patients could then be given drugs to thin their blood and prevent the heart attack.
The U.S. researchers developing the test believe it will be possible to predict heart attacks two to three weeks in advance. It is hoped the test will cost under £65 per person. In the future, it might even be possible to use microchips implanted in the body to detect the danger signs.
Heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer with someone dying from a heart attack every six minutes. The study, by U.S. scientists at the respected Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, focuses on cells released when arteries crack in the lead-up to a heart attack.
Most heart attacks begin with the gradual cracking of an artery that has been damaged by smoking, high blood pressure or other factors. After several weeks, a blood clot seals the damage, blocking the blood supply in the process and causing a heart attack. Current tests of heart health are unable to pick up this cracking.
This means that many people who go to hospital with chest pains are sent home with a clean bill of health, only to suffer a heart attack days later. The new test would be added to those given to chest-pain patients. The researchers compared blood samples from heart attack patients and healthy people. This revealed differences in cells that lined the inside of the arteries before breaking off into the bloodstream.
In the heart-attack patients, these circulating endothelial cells were much more numerous and abnormally large and mis-shapen, the journal Science Translational Medicine reported yesterday. The researchers believe the difference should be noticeable when the artery is cracking, making it possible to predict a heart attack. Lead researcher Dr Eric Topol said it should be possible to have a simple blood test ready for use by the end of next year.
‘This could be an ideal way to diagnose a heart attack waiting to happen,’ he said. Researcher Dr Paddy Barrett said: ‘We have potentially moved much closer to the holy grail of cardiovascular medicine in terms of predicting those who are on the cusp of a heart attack.’ But British cardiac experts were more cautious, saying that while the work is exciting, it is still at a preliminary stage.
Professor Peter Weissberg, the British Heart Foundation’s medical director, said: ‘The study only shows that patients in the throes of a heart attack have abnormal cells. ‘It does not show that such cells were present before the heart attack started. ‘This will have to be explored in future studies. It will also be important to show that the abnormal cells only appear during a heart attack and are not also present in other illnesses.’