Early warning health check trial saves 120 lives

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THE lives of 120 apparently healthy men and women living across Tayside and Fife have potentially been saved because they volunteered to take part in a ground breaking medical study, it was revealed today.

The volunteers - all of whom had no history of heart disease in their families - had been recruited to take part in a major research project looking at ways of preventing two of Scotland’s biggest killers – heart disease and stroke.

In a world first all the volunteers were offered a whole body MRI scan as part of their intensive health checks.

And they were referred to medical specialists for life saving treatment after they were found to have previously undetected or untreated serious health problems including high levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

The researchers at Dundee University, who are conducting the research project, said the 120 volunteers whose lives have potentially been saved represented more than one in ten of the hundreds of apparently healthy people who have so far been screened as part of the study.

Professor Jill Belch. who is leading the “TASCFORCE” study into the killer diseases, said: “This is the first time that anyone in Tayside and Fife without a history of heart disease could have a thorough heart health check on request.

“This is a large scale epidemiological study and therefore its full impact will not be known for over ten years. But the early signs show that the early detection of higher risk individuals may have saved up to 120 lives over the next ten years.”

Heart attack and stroke are still amongst the most common causes of serious illness and death in Scotland, despite major advances in preventive medicine. And the TASCFORCE research is looking at which screening techniques, used in studying the healthy volunteers, are most effective in identifying people at risk of heart disease so that it can be prevented or treated at an early stage.

In addition to the normal “gold standard” cardiovascular health assessments which include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index readings, the health checks have included the “unique” inclusion of two additional potential screening techniques - measuring a blood chemical called BNP (B-type natriuretic peptide) which indicates heart function, and full-body MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans.

Over 1,500 volunteers have already been offered an MRI scan as part of the study.

Prof Belch ,Professor of vascular medicine at the university’s Institute of Cardiovascular Research explained: “So far, the early results indicate that just over 12 per cent of the healthy volunteers had previously undetected or untreated health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.

“All of these participants received appropriate advice and have been referred to their GPs for further investigations and treatment.”

She added: “We are encouraged at this stage that these additional tests could hopefully be helping improve health across Scotland and far beyond for many years to come, and we are very grateful to our funders: the Souter Foundation and Chest, Heart and Stroke, Scotland.”

Graeme Houston, SINAPSE Professor of Clinical Imaging at Dundee University, said: “This use of MRI scanning of ostensibly healthy volunteers to detect early heart and blood vessel problems is a world first.

“This new whole-body MRI scanner assessment of those that could be at risk of significant cardiovascular disease offers a unique way of detecting early problems, which is vital in being able to treat patients at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Dr Roberta Littleford, the trial manager. said: “I would also like to extend a personal thank you to the whole TASCFORCE team whose efforts have enabled the study to each its phenomenal target.”

She added: “The project would not have been possible without the fantastic support of the volunteers, many Tayside employers, hospital colleagues and GPs. May companies supported the project by allowing their staff time off to attend appointments. Not only did GPs support the recruitment process they arranged further investigations and started treatment if required.”