New heart trouble indicator is found

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Doctors have identified a substance in the blood that they believe will turn out to be the "new cholesterol" in terms of predicting a person's risk of developing heart disease and strokes.

Doctors have identified a substance in the blood that they believe will turn out to be the "new cholesterol" in terms of predicting a person's risk of developing heart disease and strokes.

Homocysteine is an amino acid which occurs naturally in the blood as a result of digesting protein.

A clinical trial is under way to demonstrate whether taking dietary supplements of the vitamin folic acid, which might lower levels of homocysteine in the blood, will be as effective as existing campaigns aimed at targeting people with high levels of cholesterol, scientists said yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

"Within five years it may be proven that 0.2 to 5 milligrams of folic acid per day can prevent heart attacks and strokes in patients with elevated homocysteine levels," said René Malinow, who is overseeing the clinical trial at the Oregon Regional Primate Center.

Homocysteine has over the past few years been implicated in a range of illnesses. Its toxicity is thought to be related to the way it reacts with oxygen in the blood stream, damaging healthy tissues in the process.

Donald Jacobsen, a medical specialist at the Cleveland Clinical Foundation, said that although homocysteine is strongly linked with atherosclerosis, it is only by carrying such a trial over a five-year period that it will be possible to prove that it actually causes diseased arteries.

Developing a test for homocysteine was the breakthrough that enabled doctors to link it with some of the biggest killers in the developed world.

"As a result of having reliable assays [tests], it soon became apparent that homocysteine, as a risk fact, would rival cholesterol. In fact some call homocysteine the 'new cholesterol'," Dr Jacobsen said.

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