(CBS) Doctors are buzzing over a new blood test that might rule out a heart attack earlier than ever before. The test looks for spikes in levels of so-called "troponin I" proteins that indicate heart muscle damage. The higher the levels of troponin, the more likely it is a person will have a heart attack.
It's crucial to find out as early as possible whether a patient who comes to the emergency room with chest pains is at high risk for a heart attack because, "They benefit the most from early and aggressive treatment," study author Dr. Till Keller, a cardiologist at the University Heart Center Hamburg, Germany, said in a written statement.
To find out the new test's effectiveness, researchers enlisted 1,818 patients with suspected acute coronary syndrome - conditions such as heart attacks or angina - who were enrolled in chest pain units at German hospitals from 2007 to 2008. Of these patients, 413 were diagnosed with an acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, at discharge.
The researchers compared their new highly sensitive troponin I assay (hsTnI) to tests for other biomarkers, and found at hospital admission, the test had an 82.3 percent accuracy in diagnosing a heart attack and a 94.7 percent accuracy in ruling one out. Three hours after admission, the test fared even better. It positively diagnosed a heart attack with 98.2 percent accuracy and ruled one out with 99.4 percent predictive value. A less-sensitive, currently used troponin 1 test called cTnI scored similarly, but the researchers say the new test picks up even lower levels of troponin faster than the cTNI test that could require multiple blood draws over a 16 hour period.
"In our study, the diagnostic information of hsTnI was superior to all other evaluated biomarkers alone," the authors wrote.
The study is published in the Dec. 28 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
What does this test mean for people experiencing severe chest pains?
"This new assay will likely have a positive impact on decreasing length of stay and improving triage of patients with who present to the emergency department with chest pain," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City told CBS News in an email. "This is important because the sooner doctors can make a diagnosis of a heart attack, the sooner they can begin to administer key therapies."
Symptoms of a heart attack include discomfort, pressure, or pain in the chest, discomfort radiating to the arm, back, jaw, or throat, and sweating, nausea, and dizziness.
WebMD has more on heart attacks.