A simple blood test may be able to predict a myocardial infarction (MI) about one week before it occurs, a small study in Science Translational Medicine found.
According to the study, individuals with high levels of misshapen circulating endothelial cells (CECs) are more likely to imminently suffer an MI than individuals with normal levels. CECs line blood vessels and control their ability to widen and prevent clots.
For the study, Scripps Translational Science Institute researchers used fluorescent images to compare the CEC levels of 50 patients who had presented to a San Diego ED with an MI with those of 44 healthy individuals.
They found that CEC levels in an MI patient could be more than 400% higher than levels in people who had not suffered an MI. In addition, the researchers determined that CEC levels generally begin to rise an average of one week before an individual experiences an MI.
Although physicians have long been able to assess blockages that could cause MIs, they have not been able to determine the likelihood of an MI or its potential timing. "The ability to diagnose an imminent heart attack has long been considered the holy grail of cardiovascular medicine," said study author Eric Topol.
If the findings are confirmed, Sharp HealthCare's Raghava Gollapudi, a study author, said a CEC test could become widely available within one to two years. Gollapudi noted that the test could help ED physicians determine if a patient is about to have an MI, rather than simply detect them as or after they occur.
However, Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital, warned that further study is required before the test is "ready for prime time," suggesting that managing risk factors—like diet, exercise, and blood pressure—remains the best way to prevent MIs.
Barry Kaplan, vice chair of cardiology at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, expressed similar concerns. "It may have potential to be predictive, but we do not know when these cells become abnormal in relation to when a heart attack occurs" (Medical News Today, 3/22; Mann, HealthDay, 3/21; Flinn, BloombergBusinessweek, 3/21; Koebler, U.S. News and World Report, 3/21).