Scientists find blood test may predict heart attack


Research Report

By Lynne Friedmann

Medical providers can determine if someone is having or has recently had a heart attack, but cannot tell if a patient is on the cusp of having one in the next couple of weeks. This could change in a profound way following a study confirming the presence of abnormally large or misshapen circulating endothelial cells (CEC) in the blood stream in the days leading up to a heart attack. A blood test for telltale CECs could predict a patient’s risk of an imminent heart attack while there is still time to head off a medical crisis.

The findings come from a study, involving 50 patients, led by the

Scripps Translational Science Institute

, which found dramatic differences in CEC levels in heart attack patients when compared to a healthy control group. CECs were first connected to impending heart attacks back in 1999, but techniques to isolate and study these cells were not available until now.

With additional validation, researchers believe a predictive CEC blood test could be developed for commercial use in the next year or two. The findings appear in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Self-healing hydrogels

One of the fundamental properties of living tissues that allows recovery from repeated damage, is self-healing. Bioengineers have been keen to mimic this in synthetic materials but so far have been unable to develop hydrogels that can rapidly repair when cut. Now, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering researchers announce a self-healing hydrogel that binds in seconds, as easily as Velcro, to form a bond strong enough to withstand repeated stretching.

Hydrogels consists of linked chains of polymer molecules that form a flexible, gelatin-like material similar to soft tissues. Researchers pushed the technology forward by using “dangling side chain” molecules that extend like fingers on a hand from the primary structure of the hydrogel network and enable them to grasp one another.

This innovation was hit upon after computer simulations revealed that a hydrogel’s ability to self-heal depended on the length of these side chain molecules. In addition, the new hydrogel’s strength and flexibility in an acidic environment – similar to that of the stomach – favors it as an adhesive to heal stomach perforations or for controlled drug delivery.

The finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Controlling memory

Scripps Research Institute scientists have successfully harnessed neurons in mouse brains, allowing them to partially control a specific memory. The team set out to manipulate specific memories by inserting two genes into mice; one of which produces receptors that can be chemically triggered to activate a neuron. This technique permits “on-off switching” in neurons involved in the formation of specific memories.

The “on” switch was triggered in mice that were then placed in an environment with distinct colors, smells, and textures (Box A). Next, the mice were placed in a different environment (Box B) after receiving the chemical that turned on the neurons associated with the memory for Box A. Mice behaved as if they were forming a hybrid memory that was part Box A and part Box B.

An underlying goal of this basic research is to understand what goes wrong in situations of inappropriate perceptions, such as in schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. The results were reported in the journal Science.

—Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.