New Blood Test for Heart Attack Risk

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Move over, cholesterol: a new blood test that measures a component of the blood called gamma-prime fibrinogen can identify people who are at risk for a heart attack, even if they don’t have high cholesterol.

Cholesterol is still considered a risk factor for heart attack, yet research shows that about half the people who suffer a fatal heart attack each year have normal cholesterol levels. Clearly there are other risk factors physicians can look for, and according to the authors of a new study from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), “this [gamma-prime fibrinogen] is another risk factor that we should test for.”

Interest in gamma-prime fibrinogen is nothing new for researchers at OHSU, who reported in July 2002 they had found “that higher levels of gamma-A/gamma-prime fibrinogen, regardless of total fibrinogen, are associated with predisposition to coronary artery disease, the precursor to heart attacks.” Gamma-prime fibrinogen is a component of fibrinogen, a clot-forming protein that is found in blood at varying levels.

After that pilot study, the investigators, including David H. Farrell, PhD, professor of pathology in the OHSU School of Medicine, and his team obtained 3,400 blood samples from the Framingham Study, the most prestigious cardiovascular disease study in the world, and embarked on a new analysis.

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The results of that analysis, which were recently published in Clinical Chemistry, revealed that elevated levels of gamma-prime fibrinogen were found in the blood samples of patients who had known risk factors for heart attack, including cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and high body mass index. Farrell noted that “We found that if your gamma-prime fibrinogen levels were in the top 25 percent, you had seven times greater odds of having coronary artery disease.”

Given these results, the next step involves implementing the test at hospitals and medical centers to determine how it works on a larger scale. Farrell foresees using the gamma-prime fibrinogen test along with a cholesterol test to improve clinicians’ ability to predict who is most likely to suffer a heart attack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that every year, about 785,000 Americans experience a first heart attack, and another 470,000 who have already had one or more heart attacks have another attack. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, representing 26 percent of all deaths.

OHSU has filed a provisional patent application for the new blood test for heart attack risk, and Farrell and his colleagues have plans to mass produce it. “It will take some time to build consensus within the field of cardiology for this test,” notes Farrell, so healthcare consumers should not expect to see it offered just yet.

SOURCES:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Oregon Health & Sciences University, news release April 19, 2010
Oregon Health & Sciences University, news release, July 25, 2002

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