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So it's not that uncommon for someone to suffer a heart attack shortly after passing a stress test or being told that their chest pain was nothing to worry about.
Wednesday's study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, investigated cells shed from the endothelium, or the lining of blood vessels, into the bloodstream. They're called "circulating endothelial cells."
First, Topol's team paired with Veridex LLC, a Johnson & Johnson unit that makes technology used to find cancer cells floating in blood. Could it find these cardiovascular cells, too?
The team took blood samples from 50 heart attack patients -- before they had any artery-disturbing tests or treatments -- and from 44 healthy volunteers. They counted lots of the endothelial cells floating in the heart attack victims' blood, and very little in the healthy people's blood.
The big surprise: The cells in the heart patients were grossly deformed. "Sick cells," is how Topol describes them.
The study couldn't tell when those abnormal cells first appeared -- and that's key, said Wake Forest's Little. It's not clear how many heart attacks happen too suddenly for any warning period.
But Topol theorizes there are plaques that break apart gradually and may shed these cells for up to two weeks before the heart attack. He cites autopsy studies that found people's arteries healed several plaque ruptures before the final one that killed them.
Topol said Scripps and Veridex have filed for a patent for a blood test to detect the abnormal cells.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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