blood cellsA new blood test may predict patients at risk of an imminent heart attack. Researchers have discovered mutated circulating endothelial cells (CECs) that are released into the bloodstream days before the formation of a clot. A blood test may be used to identify this particular cell type up to 2 weeks before the heart attack is likely to occur.

During initial stages of a heart attack, endothelial cells that line the blood vessels are damaged when vessel walls weaken, become eroded, and attract inflammatory cells. Severe inflammation causes the CECs to mutate; they clump together, break off, and enter the bloodstream.

A team of researchers at Scripps Translational Science Institute published a study in the journal Science Translational Medicine involving 94 patients, 50 of whom had experienced a heart attack while the others were healthy controls. CEC blood levels among those heart attack victims were more than four times higher than in the control group. Additionally, in those who experienced a heart attack, the CECs themselves were mutated; they had become larger, misshapen, and/or many had multiple nuclei.

While doctors have long been able to identify risk factors that increase patients’ risk for heart disease (eg, smoking, obesity and high cholesterol), heart attacks are highly unpredictable. CEC counts may serve as a promising clinical measure for the prediction of heart attacks in the future.

Physician’s Weekly wants to know… If heart attacks can be predicted, what would be the clinical and medicolegal impact of having this information?