LOUIS — Roughly 600,000 people in the U.S. die every year
from heart disease. It is the country’s leading cause of
also one of the most baffling. About half of heart disease
victims die suddenly without showing any symptoms.
than a decade Dr. Pamela Woodard, a radiologist at Washington
University’s School of Medicine, along with other
researchers around the country, have been working on
developing a procedure that could serve as an early warning
system for people at risk of having a stroke or a sudden heart
they’ve come up with is a minuscule particle, known as a
nanoparticle, that once injected into the body, can seek out
and identify the harmful buildups in arteries that can rupture
and lead to sudden death.
years of injecting the nanoparticle into mice with no harmful
side effects, the Food and Drug Administration recently
cleared Woodard and her team to start testing on human
is huge," Woodard said. "If everything goes well,
hopefully we could get this to the market in two years."
Woodard, the journey started about 14 years ago during a
conversation with her brother, Geoffrey Woodard, a science
researcher in Maryland.
studying the causes of high-blood pressure when he mentioned a
certain protein found in the body responsible for how plaque
buildup made of calcium, fat, cholesterol and other substances
causes arteries to narrow and harden. Pamela Woodard explains
that certain plaque buildups are prone to rupturing, causing
strokes or heart attacks.
what we were looking at," she said. "The kind of
plaque deposits that are more likely to kill you
that veteran Washington, D.C., journalist and "Meet the
Press" moderator Tim Russert has become something of an
unofficial poster child for this type of death.
58, had passed a stress test and was determined by his doctors
to have good heart function just two months before he suffered
a plaque rupture that led to his fatal heart attack in June
along with researchers at the University of California, Santa
Barbara and Texas A&M University, combined different
materials commonly used in medicine to create the nanoparticle
they believe can be used in the future to help identify people
at risk of plaque rupture.
nanoparticle is small enough that more than a billion can fit
on the head of a pin. The one created by Woodard and her
colleagues can be injected into a patient’s vein. Once
inside the body, it will seek out and "light up" the
type of fatty plaque that is prone to rupture.
can then put the patient through a positron emission
tomography, or PET, scan to identify the plaque buildups.
her brother and two other researchers now hold a patent on
this particular nanoparticle.
getting FDA approval, the nanoparticle has been injected into
two healthy volunteers, with no apparent side effects, Woodard
said. Researchers expect to inject the nanoparticle into two
other healthy volunteers within a month.
in March, we’ll be able to test this on actual
patients," she said.
one member of the research team is anticipating other
practical uses of the nanoparticle if the current tests go
well. Craig Hawker, director of the California Nanosystems
Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara,
believes the targeting properties of different nanoparticles
can be assembled "like Lego building blocks."
words, the nanoparticle used to seek out the causes of heart
disease can be re-engineered to target certain cancers.
be "easy to swap," he said.