How early can we predict heart disease?

What if we could predict who is vulnerable to heart disease before their symptoms start? That’s the focus of a long-term study in Canterbury, involving 3400 heart-healthy volunteers.

The Heart Foundation has contributed funding for this study, with funds generously given to us by the Lawrance & Stephanie Russell Charitable Trust.

This innovative study aims to find better ways of predicting heart disease in people who may not have developed any symptoms yet..

Professor Vicky Cameron of the Christchurch Heart Institute has been recruiting a group of heart-healthy volunteers since 2002, randomly selected from the Canterbury electoral rolls. 

The volunteers have generously allowed researchers to collect blood and DNA samples and test their heart function. The samples and information have contributed to at least 24 scientific articles so far.

“This group has been followed for more than a decade, and although all participants were all heart-healthy on recruitment, some have gone on to have a heart event within three years of their samples being collected,” Professor Cameron explains. 

“We have blood samples collected at various points prior to an unexpected heart event, presenting an opportunity for us to identify new blood tests to predict the risk of future cardiac events in those who have not yet developed heart disease symptoms.”

Prof Cameron says her team have already developed some promising new blood tests for predicting the risk of a heart attack in the near future.

However, until now they haven’t been able to unlock the full value of the volunteers’ samples. 

That’s because they didn’t have funds to test the blood samples for cholesterol levels. This is necessary because, to find out whether new markers are better than existing markers, researchers need to calculate the volunteers’ ‘NZ cardiovascular risk score’ (the established way that GPs measure the risk of having a heart event within five years). 

Cholesterol levels are an essential part of the score’s formula, along with data the team already had, such as age, gender, smoking status, diabetes and systolic blood pressure.

The Heart Foundation’s grant has funded laboratory testing of stored, frozen samples from the volunteers for their levels of cholesterol, urate, and creatinine, which are known predictors of heart disease risk. 

This information will allow Professor Cameron’s team to calculate the NZ cardiovascular risk scores, allowing them to evaluate how well new blood tests perform compared to the established method of risk prediction. 

Thanks to the Lawrance & Stephanie Russell Charitable Trust for providing the original funding, and to the Cantabrians who are helping find better tests for heart disease.