'Holy Grail' of Heart Medicine Could Predict Heart Attacks

Researchers have discovered a certain type of cell in blood vessel walls that can be a precursor to a heart attack.

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For years, doctors have used high blood pressure and cholesterol numbers to be able to reasonably predict who is most at risk for a heart attack. But a new blood test being called the "holy grail of cardiovascular medicine" might be able to tell when a heart attack is imminent.

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In heart attack patients, the circulating cells which line blood vessels, called endothelial cells, were misshapen, abnormally large and sometimes have multiple nuclei, according to researchers at Scripps Health in San Diego, who published their study in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The researchers say they can tell whether a patient is about to have a heart attack by gathering and isolating those endothelial cells in a blood test.

"The ability to diagnose an imminent heart attack has long been considered the holy grail of cardiovascular medicine," Eric Topol, the study's lead, said in a statement. He called the test an "important discovery that may help to change the future of cardiovascular medicine."

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, killing about 1 million people each year. More than 900,000 people experience a heart attack each year.

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The researchers say they can make the test commercially available as early as next year, and it might be a useful tool for emergency room and primary care doctors.

"This would be an ideal test to perform in an emergency room to determine if a patient is on the cusp of a heart attack or about to experience one in the next couple of weeks," said Raghava Gollapudi, one of the researchers. "Right now, we can only test to detect if a patient is currently experiencing or has recently experienced a heart attack."