A simple blood test could help protect thousands who are at risk of a potentially life-threatening and difficult to diagnose heart complication.

Acute aortic syndrome (AAS) occurs when the wall of the aorta tears and blood begins to flow between the layers of the blood vessel wall.

Patients with AAS need immediate treatment - in the most severe cases emergency surgery - to prevent the artery from rupturing and the patient dying.

The most common risk factor is high blood pressure. Patients with aortic dissection at a young age (less than 40) are more likely to have birth heart defects such as a bicuspid aortic valve, or prior surgery.

Diagnosing the disease in time is often difficult as symptoms, such as chest pain, can be attributed to other commoner conditions.

Researchers at the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh have found that testing for a molecule called ‘desmosine’ may speed up diagnosis of this deadly disease, which affects around 3000 people in the UK every year.

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A study, funded by the British Heart Foundation, compared blood concentrations of desmosine in 53 patients known to have AAS and 106 people without the disease.

They found that those suffering from AAS had almost double the concentration of desmosine in their blood. Desmosine levels were also associated with aortic growth which occurs when the aorta becomes damaged.

The team believe that desmosine is released into the blood when the tissues within the wall of the aorta break down, signalling that the aorta has been damaged and is at risk of expanding or bursting.

They now hope to use these findings to explore whether a simple blood test for desmosine could speed up the diagnosis of AAS in hospital.

Mr Maaz Syed, Clinical Research Fellow at the BHF Department for Cardiovascular Sciences, University of Edinburgh, said: "Right now, acute aortic syndrome is catastrophic. Diagnosis is difficult and when it comes to treatment, every second's delay can prove fatal.

“We urgently need a new, faster way to diagnose this catastrophic disease so that we can get patients the swift, life-saving treatment that they need.

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"We need to confirm these results in bigger trials, but we hope that we have a potential biomarker that may help us detect a dangerous disease.”

Dr Anna-Maria Choy, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Dundee’s School of Medicine, said: “Time is absolutely vital when the aorta develops a tear and so anything that enables clinicians to make a rapid diagnosis and begin treatment right away will undoubtedly save lives.

“Desmosine is almost the holy grail in this regard because until now we do not have reliable blood tests for aortic tears.

"This is why my colleague Dr Jeffrey Huang sought to develop a simple test that would allow for quick diagnosis.

"Using his technology, we have been able to work with collaborators in Edinburgh to prove that desmosine is a biomarker of AAS.”

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A long-term study is underway at the University of Edinburgh looking at the risk of aortic dissection in patients with birth heart defects.

Aortic dissection is associated with a common, congenital hereditary heart defect called a Bicuspid aortic valve, where the valve has two leaflets instead of three and which occurs in around one 100 births. 

Dr Alex Fletcher is leading a study, which will monitor around 60 patients who are at risk of a dissection and aims to develop a more effective screening tool.

The British Heart Foundation-funded study is trying to identify those at the highest risk of having the complication, who would benefit from corrective, open heart surgery.