New blood test may give doctors early warning sign of heart attack

By Carrie Johnson Weimar O'Brien • Published: June 7th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The scenario is distressingly familiar: A patient goes to the hospital, complaining of chest pains. He’s discharged after passing a cardiac check-up, but then suffers a heart attack a few days later. To help prevent situations like this from happening, doctors have now developed a blood test they hope will serve as an early detection system for heart attacks.

To understand how the blood test works, you have to know why most heart attacks occur. In most cases, cardiac arrest comes after a fatty deposit breaks free of an artery and a blood clot forms to seal the break. If the clot is too large, it blocks the passage of blood through the artery and sends the patient into cardiac arrest.

The problem is even the most sophisticated tests can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future. That’s where the new blood test comes in. Doctors search the blood for cells that appear to have flaked off severely distressed arteries, which indicates a break may be imminent.

The test was developed by researchers at Scripps Translational Science Institute in California, who were studying cells shed from the lining of arteries. The team took blood from heart attack patients and healthy volunteers. They found a high number of cells in the blood from the heart attack patients and almost none in the blood from the healthy volunteers.

One drawback: The researchers couldn’t tell when the cells started to appear in the blood, so it’s hard to know how early a warning signal it may be. But based on their findings, the doctors theorize the cells begin to appear between one to two weeks before an attack.

The doctors believe that with almost 1 million incidents of cardiac arrest in the U.S. each year, every little bit of warning could make a sizable difference.