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Blood Test Warns of Impending Heart Attack

California researchers think they've found a way to predict a heart attack by determining whether a certain kind of cell, called a CEC, is circulating in the blood.

Might signal danger up to 2 weeks before event

A new blood test may identify people at risk of an imminent heart attack. Scientists have found that certain cells in the bloodstream can give advance warning of a heart attack, even when other test results are normal.

Doctors are pretty good at telling when a patient is at above-average risk of a heart attack. High blood pressure, family history, and a lack of exercise can all point to high risk - in general, at some point in the future. But those warning signs don't help predict whether the danger lies 15 years from now, or next week.

Now, researchers in California think they have found a way of telling whether that heart attack is imminent by determining whether a certain kind of cell called a CEC is circulating in the blood.

Lead investigator Paddy Barrett, of the Scripps Translational Science Institute explains that "a CEC is a circulating endothelial cell, which lines the inside of a patient's artery. And when you have a heart attack, this artery cracks, releases this cell, and with a simple blood test we can identify this particular cell type."

The blood test found that heart attack patients had significantly more CECs in their blood - four times more, on average.

Although this study focused on heart attack patients, the scientists say the endothelial cells can enter the bloodstream before a full-blown heart attack, typically one to two weeks earlier.

"And we believe, when we refine this test, that we will be able to predict, in the future, who was about to have a heart attack or on the cusp of having a heart attack," Barrett said.

Using automated equipment to analyze the blood for the presence of CECs, the Scripps researchers say the process could potentially be done at the patient's bedside, and might take only 20 or 30 minutes.

The test could become available in a year or two.