A new blood test may in future help doctors identify patients at risk of a heart attack, scientists have said.
Research has revealed unusual cells circulating in the blood of recent heart attack sufferers.
Experts believe spotting them early may show when a high-risk patient is about to have an attack.
The circulating endothelial cells (CECs) are abnormally large, misshapen, and often have multiple nuclei. Scientists in San Diego, USA, found that 50 patients admitted to hospitals as emergency cases after a heart attack had high numbers of the cells in their blood.
Lead investigator Dr Eric Topol, from Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI), said: "The ability to diagnose an imminent heart attack has long been considered the Holy Grail of cardiovascular medicine."
Working with industry colleagues, the scientists hope to develop a commercial test within the next two years.
Dr Raghava Gollapudi, from the company Sharp HealthCare, who took part in the research said: "This would be an ideal test to perform in an emergency room to determine if a patient is on the cusp of a heart attack or about to experience one in the next couple of weeks.
"Right now we can only test to detect if a patient is currently experiencing or has recently experienced a heart attack."
The findings are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This is an interesting study and represents a new approach to trying to predict who might be at risk of an impending heart attack.
"However, the current study only shows that patients in the throes of a heart attack have abnormal cells. It does not show that such cells were present before the heart attack started. This will have to be explored in future studies.
"It will also be important to show that the abnormal cells only appear during a heart attack and are not also present in other illnesses."
This research follows another heart attack risk study which raises doubts about the value of vitamin E supplements and whether they played at part in decreasing women’s risk of developing heart failure.
In the study reported in Circulation: Heart Failure journal, researchers followed a group of nearly 40,000 women aged 45 and older in the Women’s Health Study for an average of about 10 years.
The women took 600 international units (IU) of vitamin E or a placebo every other day. During the study, 220 episodes of heart failure were diagnosed and the results showed that taking vitamin E supplements had no impact on the women’s risk of developing heart failure.
Dietetic advisor for HEART UK Linda Main said: “Until there is more evidence to support the benefit of taking supplemental vitamin E in people with circulatory disease it is best to avoid costly supplements and continue to consume a healthy varied diet.
"That means a diet that is rich in a range of fruits, vegetables and pulses, low fat dairy foods, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meat and heart healthy spreading and cooking fats (based on nut and seed oils) and which is low in processed foods, salt and added sugar. Such a diet will contain a range of nutrients that are beneficial to heart health.
“Vitamin E is a major antioxidant and is known to help maintain the integrity of fats in the blood and cell membranes, helping to prevent them from being oxidised. It is important to have a regular intake of vitamin E throughout life.
"It is found in wholegrain cereals, nuts, vegetable oils and some vegetables and fruits. Some groups of the population might benefit from a supplement of vitamin E, particularly those with poor appetites, with increased needs or individuals with poor fat absorption.”