Every 40 seconds, someone in the US dies of cardiovascular disease (CVD). It is the number one cause of death in the world, but researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) may have stumbled upon an easy way to predict – and maybe prevent – deaths from this common disease.

Dr. Geoff Thiele, professor of internal medicine, and Michael Duryee, research coordinator at UNMC’s College of Medicine, were not even trying to solve heart disease problems.

The pair were focusing on a molecule – malondialdehyde-acetaldehyde (MAA) – that is indicative of inflammatory conditions in an attempt to find clues about arthritis and liver disease. What they discovered, however, is that the molecule also seemed to indicate the presence of coronary artery disease.

Coronary artery disease results when plaque grows in the arteries until blood flow to the heart is constricted. If enough plaque builds up, a piece could break off and block blood flow to the heart, which results in a heart attack or stroke.

The researchers note that for many people, a heart attack is the first indication that they have the deadly disease.

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Researchers Dan Anderson (left), Michael Duryee (right) and Geoff Thiele (not pictured) from UNMC believe they will soon be able to develop a test to predict deadly heart disease in patients.

The test that Duryee and Dr. Thiele, along with Dr. Dan Anderson – a researcher and practicing physician at UNMC – are developing could alert patients that they have a lethal form of CVD before that first heart attack.

Dr. Anderson says, “In the current realm of understanding disease, we know that inflammation is important in cardiovascular disease. But we really don’t understand a lot about why or how. We should have seen and recognized this decades prior, and prevented it. People tend to feel okay and think they’re okay. But they’re not even seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

The research team have so far conducted two pilot studies, where they tested blood from hundreds of volunteer patients. The results have shown a correlation between presence of the MAA molecule and heart disease.

Though there will be another round of testing with longer-term studies, the research team and the UNeMed Corporation are beginning to have discussions with external companies about how their results can be turned into products that can minimize patients’ risk of a heart attack.

Dr. Thiele notes that a simple blood test could be developed as a result of their findings, which could easily be carried out in any clinical lab.

Currently, identifying which patients with CVD are headed for a heart attack and which ones will suffer few effects is a tricky endeavor. Dr. Anderson says when he first heard of Dr. Thiele and Duryee’s discovery, he said:

‘Oh my God.’ From a clinical diagnostic perspective, this becomes invaluable to help understand those different groups of patients.”

According to the team, about 30 percent of people who have heart disease somehow slip through the cracks, in what Dr. Anderson terms “a failure of medicine.”

Although the American Heart Association reports that from 1999 to 2009, the CVD death rate declined by 33%, the number of lives lost to the disease each day in the US is still more than 2,150.

If the research team’s test is developed down the road, perhaps one day the statistics will decrease even further.