Payel Roy, Ph.D.

Can we diagnose early signs of heart disease using blood test-based screening strategy?

Millions of Americans die every year due to stroke or heart attack. The pathological condition that leads to such fatal consequences is called atherosclerosis. It is characterized by a gradual build-up of fatty deposits that narrows or clogs arteries. These deposits disrupt blood flow and reduce oxygen and nutrient supply to major organs such as the heart and the brain. What makes atherosclerosis so insidious is a long asymptomatic phase during which the disease progresses silently. Sometimes the disease is detected at such advanced stages that it is too late to prevent a heart attack or a stroke. My project explores developing a simple yet efficient blood test-based screening strategy that can identify “at-risk” individuals early on so that we can avoid such fatal consequences.

Traditionally, atherosclerosis has been viewed as a “lipid-mediated” disorder and thus disease management focuses primarily on controlling the lipids, such as LDL-cholesterol. Yet, lowering lipid levels to recommended levels doesn’t protect most people from a cardiac event, indicating missing pieces in the puzzle. Mouse model research has shown that atherosclerosis is driven by certain immune cells that have gone rogue. Initially they are few in number. But as the disease progresses these harmful cells multiply and outcompete their “protective” counterparts, tilting the balance towards a severe outcome. Such “harmful” vs “protective” functional dichotomy is particularly evident in case of T cells, a highly specialized immune cell.

As a first in human atherosclerosis research, I propose to use an optimized set of immunological assays to identify disease-associated “rogue” T cells in human blood and track their functional evolution over the course of the disease. When combined with cutting-edge sequencing technologies, these assays can generate molecular “fingerprints” of the harmful and the protective cell-types. The results could help inform the development of a blood-based screening strategy for heart disease.

SPARKing Impact: In-depth understanding of the immune drivers of the human disease will radically change the diagnostic and therapeutic options available. Routine monitoring and early identification of at-risk individuals will enable timely medical attention. Thus, a blood test can save lives.