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Study: Blood samples could show risk of death

Researchers working in Finland and Estonia have identified characteristics in blood samples that appear to indicate an increased mortality risk in generally healthy people. When present in blood samples in higher-than-usual amounts, the four ‘biomarkers’ showed that the person was more likely to die in the next five years.

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Researchers in Finland and Estonia reckon they may have hit upon an indicator of impending doom, after discovering an association between elevated levels of four so-called ‘biomarkers’ in blood samples and the risk of short-term mortality.

They screened thousands of blood samples using a technique called NMR Spectroscopy, which allows researchers to screen large numbers of blood samples in a cost-effective way. They measured levels of 106 different biomarkers to see if any correlated with early death.

Using this method they were able to look at blood samples from a total of 17,000 people on both sides of the Gulf of Finland, thanks to the participation of the Estonian Biobank.

Those people with elevated levels of four biomarkers in their blood sample—plasma albumin, alpha-1-acid glycoprotein, very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particle size, and citrate—were found to have a significantly increased risk of dying within the next five years.

Biomarkers could indicate ‘general frailty’

The individuals with a biomarker score in the top 20 percent were 19 times more likely to die within five years than those in the bottom 20 percent.

In numerical terms, that means that 288 people with a biomarker score in the top 20 percent were dead within half a decade, the majority of those died from heart disease, cancer and other diseases, while just 15 people in the bottom 20 percent died.

"What is especially interesting is that these biomarkers reflect the risk for dying from very different types of diseases such as heart disease or cancer. They seem to be signs of a general frailty in the body," says Dr. Johannes Kettunen.

Researchers point out that there are limits to the study, as it only observes a correlation between biomarker score and mortality and could miss underlying causes. Both the Estonian and Finnish cohorts are northern European, so it is not known whether the results would be replicated in different ethnic groups.

Despite the caution, researchers believe their work will soon be useful to public health practitioners.

"We believe that in the future these measures can be used to identify people who appear healthy but in fact have serious underlying illnesses and guide them to proper treatment. More studies are, however, needed before these findings can be implemented in clinical practice," said Kettunen.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), the University of Oulu, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Helsinki and the Estonian Biobank.

The research was published on Wednesday in an article in the PLOS Medicine journal.

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