A new assay looks for cells in the bloodstream that come from damaged arteries plagued by plaque.

A simple blood test developed by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California could prove effective in predicting a heart attack.

The test, reported on today in the journal Physical Biology, identifies endothelial cells in the bloodstream. These cells can be found after heart attacks and circulate when arteries rupture due to a buildup of plaque.

Peter Kuhn, a researcher at Scripps and co-author of the study, told Healthline that the test requires just 1 milliliter of blood. Fluorescent markers are used to label the cells, which are examined and analyzed by a computer.

“Industrialization of the process is now needed to bring this to broad availability,” Kuhn said.

The procedure is known as a High-Definition Circulating Endothelial Cell (HD-CEC) assay. In developing it, researchers took blood samples from 79 patients who had experienced a heart attack and compared them to samples from 25 healthy people and seven patients undergoing treatment for vascular disease who were at high risk for a heart attack.

Kuhn said that the technology has been licensed to Epic Sciences who are now “shrink-wrapping it for routine use.”

Take a 3D Look Inside the Human Heart »

Researchers said the test can identify endothelial cells better than a commercially available test called CellSearch, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to count tumor cells in the blood of cancer patients.

“Our assay effectively analyzes millions of cells, which is more work but guarantees that you are analyzing all of the potential cells,” Kuhn said in a news release. “With the enrichment stage in the CellSearch methodology, it is possible that the important cells you wish to study could be lost.”

Kuhn said the HD-CEC test uses multi-color imagery and computer-assisted calculations to spot dangerous cells. “Think about solving a Where’s Waldo? problem by an advanced photography approach. If you want to find Waldo, you need to look carefully at everyone who is there.”

Find the Best Heart Disease Monitoring Apps for Your Smartphone »

Next, Kuhn and his colleagues want to replicate their findings in patients having acute chest pain. Minutes matter when someone is having a heart attack.

And identifying someone who is acutely at risk, before severe symptoms occur, can save lives. Doctors could begin treating a patient for high blood pressure or put them on blood thinners right away, for example.

On the flip side, the test could also let doctors know if chest pain or other symptoms do not indicate a heart attack or the need for expensive hospitalization.

“Our ability to conduct science in a clinically relevant setting with outcomes that can directly impact patient care has come of age now through the real collaboration amongst the disciplines,” Kuhn said. “Our ability to do basic science in the patient setting is huge because the outcomes can be immediately discussed in the context of the actual patient.”

Learn All About High Blood Pressure Medications »