Study of the Day: A Fast, Simple Way to Predict a Heart Attack

A promising new blood test that spots abnormal cells lining the surface of blood vessels could enable doctors to flag patients at risk of heart failure.

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PROBLEM: People with chest pain typically head for the emergency room, worried they might be having a heart attack. But unless there's already damage to their heart muscles, doctors can't gauge if the patients are on the cusp of a heart attack or about to experience one in the next couple of weeks.

METHODOLOGY: Scripps Translational Science Institute researchers led by Samir Damani developed and administered a new blood test in 50 patients who presented to emergency rooms with heart attacks and 44 healthy volunteers. They used state-of-the art cell-isolation technologies to accurately detect circulating endothelial cells (CEC) coming from the lining of a blood vessel.

RESULTS: Fluorescent images revealed that CECs from heart attack patients look strikingly different from those in the healthy control group. They're abnormally large and misshapen and often appeared with multiple nuclei, indicating that these cells may predict an acute arterial plaque rupture within the next two weeks.

CONCLUSION: Abnormal cells lining the surface of blood vessels may serve as biomarkers for an imminent heart attack.

SOURCE: The full study, "Characterization of Circulating Endothelial Cells in Acute Myocardial Infarction," is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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