New test detects heart attacks in minutes

April 14, 2009 7:59:59 PM PDT
Researchers say they now have a test that can tell if you're having a heart attack in just minutes rather than the current test that takes hours.

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The patient in this operating room has a disorder that's treated with a seemingly extreme procedure: a planned, medically induced-heart attack.

"In this unique situation, patients actually have too much heart muscle. We perform a planned heart attack to minimize the excess heart muscle and only in this unique scenario after the heart attack do the patients actually improve," said Dr. Robert Gerszten from Massachusetts General Hospital.

But by studying this rare condition, Dr. Gerszten and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered a faster way to detect heart attacks in the rest of us.

First, it's important to understand that all heart attacks change levels of chemicals in the blood -- but the most obvious take hours to happen. So Dr. Gerszten's team took blood samples before, during and after the planned heart attacks.

"Within 10 minutes of a heart attack we found approximately 10 new changes in the blood that had previously never been described," said Dr. Gerszten.

He says that being able to spot the newly discovered chemical signature quickly could save lives in the emergency room.

Since a number of conditions can mimic the symptoms of cardiac arrest, doctors have traditionally relied on tests, such as an EKG to confirm the diagnosis.

"The problem though is that the EKG is sometimes non-diagnostic. Patients will have conduction abnormality in the heart that make EKG not good for diagnosing heart attack," said Dr. Byron Lee from UCSF.

Lee points out that current blood tests, used when the EKG is inconclusive, can be dangerously slow

"The blood test we do to look for heart attack sometimes take 6 hours to get results. So waiting those six hours could be crucial and could lead to heart muscle death that we don't want to happen to patients," said Dr. Lee.

So the team at Mass. General expanded the study to normal heart attack patients arriving at the E.R.

"And indeed these changes that we saw in a planned heart attack were also seen in patients having spontaneous heart attacks as well," said Gerszten.

The hope from this early method of detection is to develop a standardized test that can be used in emergency rooms across the country.

Since the patients who had planned heart attacks benefited from the procedure, the researchers say the study had a dual benefit.

Researchers say the blood tests need to be studied in a much larger group of patients coming through ERs after suffering heart attacks to make sure these results hold up.

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