Can aspirin prevent heart attacks? This device may know the answer

Taking personalized medicine to an extreme, a device with artificial arteries analyzes blood flow to help doctors know exactly how well drugs like aspirin work to prevent heart attacks.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

microfluidic chip
The device simulates blood flowing through narrowed coronary arteries so that researchers can watch the effects of anticlotting drugs. Rob Felt

Today, if researchers want to know how well a drug like aspirin works at preventing heart attacks, the traditional approach is to test that drug on as many people as possible and try to consider a variety of contributing factors, such as age, gender, race, and heart health.

But a prototype microfluidic device being tested at Georgia Tech could enable researchers to instead run a sample of a patient's blood through artificial arteries and, instead of estimating how well the drug should work in most patients, determine exactly how well it works in that very patient's body.

In a small clinical study with 14 participants, sponsored in part by the American Heart Association and published in the journal PLOS One, researchers used this extremely personalized approach to learn that while aspirin does help prevent dangerous blood clots in some at-risk patients, it may not be as effective in patients with narrowed arteries.

"Doctors have many drug options and it is difficult for them to determine how well each of those options is going to work for a patient," Melissa Li, a grad student at Georgia Tech at the time of the study, said in a school news release. "This study is the first time that a prototype benchtop diagnostic device has tried to address this problem using varying shear rates and patient dosing and tried to make it more personalized."

The implications could be huge given an estimated 10 percent of the American population currently takes drugs daily to help reduce their risk of heart attack. Instead of presenting patients admitted to hospitals with a range of drug options, dosage guidelines, and prices, a doctor could conceivably use this desktop device to quickly test a sample of the patient's blood and, based on the results, prescribe a very tailored dose of a specific drug.

Of course, the study will need to be replicated on a far larger scale before the device will move from the lab to the clinic or hospital, but at least preliminarily it helps confirm what the researchers say physicians have been reporting: that aspirin works well in most patients, but not in those with narrowed arteries.

As for the device itself, it comes with an additional perk: It's cheap, and it requires very little blood to work. One researcher even suggested that its affordability and low blood requirements mean it might someday be used as a rapid, disposable test.