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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Oxana Galenko, with the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, poses for a photo at the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 27, 2014.
There are 1 million to 1.5 million heart attacks every year. We'd rather prevent them than treat them, and to cut into that number would be something. —Dr. Jeffrey Anderson

MURRAY — Most treatments for heart attacks are reactive, opening blocked arteries and prescribing medication, and, then, hoping it doesn't happen again.

But researchers at Intermountain Medical Center may have identified a biological process that could help doctors predict when a heart attack is imminent, helping to prevent the potentially deadly episode.

The new study requires validation with a larger sample study, but lead researcher Oxana Galenko said the findings are "significant."

"All of us have friends and relatives who didn't have any warning signals prior to having a heart attack, nothing to indicate that it would happen," she said. "That shouldn't have to happen."

A new discovery involving tiny genetic fragments — pieces of the body's messengers, ribonucleic acid — reveal that something happens in the blood chain about two to six weeks prior to a heart attack.

"There are changes in the levels of the blood," said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute.

During a heart attack, one of the coronary arteries that feeds blood into the heart becomes completely blocked, preventing necessary oxygen and nourishment from reaching the heart muscle. When this happens, the heart muscle dies and never recovers, resulting in heart failure or death.

Researchers discovered that when the genetic information of DNA is communicated to the rest of the body using messenger ribonucleic acid, there is a noticeable decline in the levels of two markers — microRNA 122 and 126.

Galenko said the discovery was made possible by examining and comparing samples from 30 people who coincidentally had their blood drawn two to six weeks prior to being admitted for a heart attack.

The blood samples are part of the Intermountain Heart Study Registry, a blood bank that is one of the largest of its kind, Anderson said. The bank contains 30,000 DNA samples that can be drawn upon for research.

Researchers are now reaching out to health care networks across the country to get access to similar samples, and they hope there are enough patients who got tested before having a heart attack, which would help to validate their study.

"It's not normal to see patients every two weeks to draw blood samples," Anderson said, adding that the Utah discovery may help to develop a system similar to the finger-stick blood-sugar test for diabetes that can be done at home and indicate whether a trip to the doctor or further medical action is necessary.

Doctors, he said, can communicate a ballpark idea of a person's risk for heart attack, using cholesterol and blood pressure levels, as well as a person's age and overall health. But there's no test available to predict imminent heart attacks.

"There are 1 million to 1.5 million heart attacks every year," Anderson said. "We'd rather prevent them than treat them, and to cut into that number would be something."

Researchers presented the results of the study at the 2014 American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.

The discovery of the genetic marker joins a handful of others identified by Intermountain researchers in the past couple years, including blood markers that could predict mortality, life expectancy, depression and heart disease in some patients.

Galenko said the discovery opens doors for researchers, helping them understand what might cause heart attack events.

"It's still so new," she said. "Our hope is to take it to the clinical setting so it can actually benefit patients, but that may be some time."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards