News

A New Saliva Test May Help Diagnose Heart Attacks Faster

Test tube filled with clear fluid on a blue, purple, and pink gradient background.

 

MirageC / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Troponin is a marker for heart damage.
  • A new saliva test for troponin promises to be faster than standard blood lab testing.
  • Faster troponin results could lead to earlier treatment and improved outcomes for some patients who have heart attacks.

An innovative test could help health care providers provide earlier intervention for patients having a heart attack. Preliminary research shows that a new saliva test can identify markers of heart damage in a patient's saliva more quickly than the standard blood tests.

A heart attack is a life-changing medical emergency. The sooner a heart attack is diagnosed and treated, the sooner blood flow can be restored to the organ, which means less damage will occur. When damage does happen, one of the markers used to detect it is called troponin.

What Is Troponin?

Troponin is a protein found in cardiac and skeletal muscle fibers. Health care providers use it as a marker to assess heart damage. It can be measured with a simple blood test. Any person who comes to the hospital with chest pain or other heart attack symptoms will have their troponin levels checked.

The initial findings of the research were presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress last week. One of the researchers, Roi Westreich, MD, PhD, of the Soroka University Medical Centre in Beer Sheva, Israel, demonstrated that troponin can be detected in a saliva sample more rapidly than it can be in a blood sample.

Westreich tells Verywell he and his colleagues tested the saliva of 41 patients with elevated blood troponin levels and compared the results to the troponin levels of 66 healthy volunteers. The samples were tested before and after being treated with a process called Saliva High Abundant Proteins Effective Depletion (SHAPED) that removes excess proteins from the saliva.

"Since no test has been developed for use on saliva, we had to use commercially available tests intended for whole blood, plasma, or serum, and adjust them for saliva examination," Yoav Neumann, PhD, the study's lead scientist on behalf of Salignostics, Ltd., said in a press release that was published by the ESC.

The researchers found that 84% of the processed saliva samples from participants with troponin in their blood also showed evidence of troponin. Only 6% of the unprocessed saliva samples showed troponin.

Patients with lower blood troponin levels were less likely to have positive saliva results. The samples from healthy volunteers yielded a 10% false-positive rate.

How Could This Help Patients in the Future?

The researchers' ultimate goal is to develop a test that could be performed before a patient gets to the hospital. “It will be calibrated to show positive results when saliva troponin levels are higher than a certain threshold and show a yes/no result, like a pregnancy test,” Westreich says.

Jennifer Haythe, MD

If we could detect heart attacks sooner, it would mean lower morbidity, less heart failure, and fewer scars causing cardiac arrhythmias.

— Jennifer Haythe, MD

The test requires no electrical power, which makes it portable and convenient to use outside of the hospital. A saliva test is also much quicker than a blood test: saliva troponin levels can be measured in 10 minutes, whereas a traditional blood test in the lab can take 30 to 60 minutes.

The time saved is significant because the sooner a heart attack is diagnosed and treated, the less permanent damage will occur in the heart.

"If we could detect heart attacks sooner, it would mean lower morbidity, less heart failure, and fewer scars [in the heart muscle] causing cardiac arrhythmias," Jennifer Haythe, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with ColumbiaDoctors at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, tells Verywell. Haythe was not involved with the saliva research.

Challenges of a Saliva Test

Physicians do not always wait for a patient's troponin results to treat a heart attack, Haythe says. If there are certain abnormalities in a patient's EKG rhythm, immediate action is required.

Two Types of Heart Attack

An ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) occurs when an artery that supplies blood flow to the heart is completely blocked. It requires immediate intervention to open the artery and restore blood flow to the heart.

A non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) is usually a partial or temporary blockage. While it is a less severe type of heart attack, it still requires urgent medical attention.

"If someone comes in with a classic presentation of a STEMI, you would not wait for blood work to come back, because the diagnosis is apparent anyway," Haythe says.

Another disadvantage to saliva troponin tests is that they only produce negative or positive results, while blood tests can show the exact troponin level.

"Troponin levels risk-stratify patients," Haythe says, adding that higher troponin levels mean a greater risk of complications.

Additionally, troponin is not always an indicator of a heart attack.

"You can have chest pain for days and not necessarily have a positive troponin," Haythe says, but "people can also have low troponin levels in renal failure and chronic heart failure."

An initial false-positive on a troponin test is not necessarily significant because a patient will have their troponin levels checked every six hours at the hospital.

Troponin results are interpreted alongside other factors, including EKG findings, levels of other cardiac markers in the blood, and the patient's medical history.

While the first results of the research are promising, Westreich says that there are still a lot of unknowns. "Further research is needed to determine how long troponin stays in the saliva after a heart attack," he says. "In addition, we need to know how many patients would erroneously be diagnosed with a heart attack and how many cases would be missed.”

"It really will come down to whether they can show that people who are having cardiac injury are having troponin measured in the saliva in a reliable way," Haythe says. "This test really needs to be validated and studied extensively before anybody will use it."

What This Means For You

While a saliva test may expedite heart attack diagnoses in the future, if you think you are having a heart attack, call for medical attention right away. Emergency medical responders are trained to start treating and monitoring your condition on the way to the hospital.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. European Society of Cardiology. Spit in a tube to diagnose heart attack. Updated August 26, 2020.

  2. American College of Cardiology. Heart attack treatment guideline. Updated January 2013.

  3. American Association for Clinical Chemistry. Troponin. Lab Tests Online. Updated January 9, 2019.

  4. European Society of Cardiology. Spit in a tube to diagnose heart attack. ScienceDaily. August 26, 2020. 

  5. Basit H, Malik A, Huecker MR. Non ST segment elevation (NSTEMI) myocardial infarction. [Updated 2020 Jul 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.