Patients who suffer heart attacks have unique cells present in their blood, according to a new study.
The "significant" findings published in the journal "Physical Biology" could potentially be used to predict whether a patient is about to have a heart attack by testing for circulating endothelial cells (CECs).
As one person in the UK dies from a heart attack every seven minutes, the test is potentially life-saving if used by doctors.
Over a 100,000 heart attacks a year in the UK are caused by the build-up of fatty plaque on the walls of a person’s blood vessels.
If this wall breaks, plaque can be released into the bloodstream: blocking the blood-flow into vessels around the heart.
However, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California have discovered that CECs were also released into a patient’s blood.
The study assessed 79 patients who had suffered a heart attack, 25 who were healthy, and seven who were receiving treatment for diseased blood vessels.
Scientists concluded that the presence of CECs in a person’s blood after a heart attack was something not seen in healthy controls.
Prof Peter Kuhn, who worked on the project, explained that the results of the study are “so significant” that the next step is to establish how the findings can be used to identify patients during the early stages of a heart attack.
He added: "There are plenty of other ways to suggest that you are at long-term risk of a heart attack and there are good ways of diagnosing that you have just had a heart attack but what we don’t have is the ability to say 'you will very likely have a heart attack in the next three weeks and we need to do something about this now'."
However, Dr Mike Knapton of the British Heart Foundation, said: “In the short to medium term, it is unlikely to change how people in the UK are treated as we already have good ways to treat and diagnose heart attacks, and targets to ensure rapid pain-to-treatment times.
"This study appears to be laying the groundwork for future research to see if this test could be used to identify patients in the early stages of a heart attack."
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In pictures: The top science news of 2013
In pictures: The top science news of 2013
A meteorite trail is seen above a residential apartment block in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013. A heavy meteor shower rained down today on central Russia, sowing panic as the hurtling space debris smashed windows and injured dozens of stunned locals, officials said
Astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, is shown in this handout photo provided by NASA as he participates in the second of two spacewalks which took place on Christmas eve 2013
An archaeologist digs out skeletons from the site of the graveyard of the Bethlehem, or Bedlam, hospital next to Liverpool Street Station in the City of London in August 2013
An olinguito, a new species of Carnivore which was newly discovered in 2013. The olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina) had been mistakenly identified for more than 100 years and is also the first carnivore species to be discovered in the American continents in 35 years.
Richard III Society member Philippa Langley stands besides a facial reconstruction of King Richard III before it is unveiled by the Richard III Society in February2013
NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in September 2013. One launch image was photobombed by a frog who was trying to hop away at the time
A shot from the world's smallest film created by manipulating atoms produced by IBM in May 2013
Nobel laureate Professor Peter Higgs at the Science Museum, London, ahead of the opening of the the museum's new "Collider" exhibition in 2013, which gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Cern particle physics laboratory in Geneva
British astronaut Major Tim Peake next to a spacesuit at the Science Museum in London back in May 2013. He will be joining the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2015.
The KSLV-1 (Naro) rocket lifts off from the launch pad at Goheung Space Center in Januar in Goheung-gun, South Korea, 2013. The rocket was originally scheduled to launch in November 2012 following two previous unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010