Knowing your risk of heart attack is complicated – even if you’re moments away from having one. The main symptoms of imminent (or already occurring) heart attack in men are chest pain, discomfort, nausea – all common for a variety of ailments, including stroke and indigestion. “What do you do with a patient who comes into the emergency room and tells the doctor he has chest pain?” says Peter Kuhn, a biophysicist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. “The patient could be just prior to a heart attack – but there’s no way to tell that.”
So Kuhn and his colleagues are developing a new, simple test that could one day help doctors tell who’s at high risk of heart attack before one happens, whether in the emergency room or during a more routine doctor’s visit. Kuhn hopes that one day the test will give a fast, effective measure of imminent cardiovascular risk from a simple blood sample. The test uses the sample to look for the presence of endothelial cells, which line blood vessels. When a person’s arteries become overloaded with plaque, endothelial cells make their way into the bloodstream – a telltale sign that a heart attack may soon follow.