A team of researchers says it has linked sensitivity to an allergen in red meat to the buildup of plaque in the arteries of the heart. While high saturated fat levels in red meat have long been known to contribute to heart disease for people in general, the new finding suggests that a subgroup of the population may be at heightened risk for a different reason: a food allergen. The study, which is supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, appears in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.
“This novel finding from a small group of subjects from Virginia raises the intriguing possibility that allergy to red meat may be an underrecognized factor in heart disease,” says study leader Coleen McNamara, MD, a professor of medicine in the Cardiovascular Research Center of the University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville. “These preliminary findings underscore the need for further clinical studies in larger populations from diverse geographic regions and additional laboratory work.”
Researchers have suspected for some time that allergens can trigger certain immunological changes that might be associated with plaque buildup and artery blockages, but no one had identified a specific substance that is responsible for this effect. In the current study, researchers showed for the first time that a specific blood marker for red meat allergy was associated with higher levels of arterial plaque, or fatty deposits on the inner lining of the arteries. The blood marker they identified is a type of antibody (immunoglobulin or IgE) that is specific to the alpha-Gal allergen.
To identify this blood marker, the researchers analyzed blood samples from 118 adults and detected antibodies to alpha-Gal, indicating sensitivity to red meat, in 26% of them. Using ultrasound, the researchers found that the quantity of plaque was 30% higher in the alpha-Gal sensitized patients than in the non-sensitized patients. These plaques, a hallmark of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), also tended to be more structurally unstable, which means that they have an increased likelihood of causing heart attack and stroke.
The evidence for a link between red meat allergens and coronary artery disease is still preliminary, the researchers noted, so they plan to conduct detailed animal and human studies to confirm their initial findings. Currently, the only treatment for red meat allergy once it is diagnosed is strict avoidance of red meat.
“While more studies are needed, the current work provides a potential new approach or target for preventing or treating heart disease in a subgroup of people who are sensitized to red meat,” says Ahmed Hasan, MD, PhD, a medical officer and program director in NHLBI’s Atherothrombosis & Coronary Artery Disease Branch.