A team led by Washington State University professor Cornelius Ivory has begun state-funded research they hope will enable doctors to detect heart attacks before they happen.
Ivory is one of the first six recipients of a grant from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which was established in 2005 to foster medical research in Washington that might also generate new economic growth. His three-year, $750,000 grant is drawn from a pool of $6 million in private donations contributed to jump-start the program before the state’s bonus share of a 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry can be tapped.
Other first-year grant recipients are looking at treatments for strokes, breast cancer and the early identification of children vulnerable to Type 1 diabetes. The grant winners were announced in September, but contracts were not signed until recently. One has yet to be signed.
Ivory said his group is looking for a way to detect the presence of a well-known indicator of heart attacks, troponin I and its variants, at extremely minute levels. Laboratory tests available today are not sensitive enough to identify the troponin until a heart attack has already occurred, he said, and the tests take at least 10 minutes to run.
Ivory compared the test he envisions to those diabetics use to monitor their blood-sugar levels. If the team is successful, a hand-held device with a chip the size of a laboratory slide would analyze a drop of blood for a troponin variance “leaking” from heart muscle cells under duress but not so severely as to trigger an infarction or other event.
Emergency rooms, clinics and ambulances could stock the device, he said, giving medical personnel a jump on treating an attack. Patients known to be at risk of an attack could self-administer the test, possibly detecting a problem ahead of time.
“The best we’re going to do is a couple of days,” Ivory said.
He said the challenges are identifying the right chemical markers, integrating the chemistry, then miniaturizing the optics, a task that may be contracted out to a third party in the region.
At the end of the three-year grant period, the WSU team hopes to be able to partner with a private company that can complete development and test and commercialize its technology, which could take 5 to 10 years to reach the market, Ivory said.
He said the potential benefit for Washington’s economy is production of the devices, and others that could test for markers of other diseases.
John DesRosier, director of programs for the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, said Ivory’s research is among the more speculative approved so far.
The fund’s board of directors, he said, wants to support research looking at a diversity of problems using science and technology at different stages of development and risk.
“We believe this (Ivory’s) research takes a novel approach,” DesRosier said. “There is an opportunity to generate some good intellectual capital in this.”
The board has announced semi-finalists for a second round of funding, and is accepting proposals for a third.