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Blood test may help predict heart disease


February 2013

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which will affect half of all men and a third of all women at some time in their lives. In Wisconsin, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, responsible for more than 16,000 deaths annually — and that number could grow as obesity and hypertension are expected to increase in Wisconsin.

A $2.5 million research grant awarded to the Medical College of Wisconsin by the National Institutes of Health may be the answer to detecting heart disease sooner, thereby saving lives. Dr. Kirkwood A. Pritchard is the principal investigator for the grant, which is funding research to develop a more precise clinical test for predicting the risk of heart disease by measuring the function of HDL or "good cholesterol" in the body.

"We know that there are two types of cholesterol — the LDL or so-called bad cholesterol and the HDL or good cholesterol. We already have a test that measures the level of HDL in the blood, but what we don’t have is a good test that measures the HDL functions to prevent heart disease," says Pritchard, professor of surgery, pharmacology and toxicology and director of translational vascular biology program at MCW and a member of the Children’s Research Institute at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

"HDL acts as a vacuum cleaner in the blood, picking up extra cholesterol from the cells and tissues and taking it back to the liver, which either uses it to make bile or recycles it," Pritchard says. This action is thought to explain why high levels of HDL are associated with low risk for heart disease. Knowing more about the functionality of HDL can help doctors predict the possibility of heart disease, according to Pritchard.

Pritchard is confident about the likelihood of developing this new blood test that will help find the potential for heart disease earlier. The test could be used on children as well as adults — anyone who has concerns about their cholesterol. "Without a doubt, at the end of the four-year grant we will be testing patient samples," he says.


This story ran in the February 2013 issue of: