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Painless Skin Test Accurately Measures Cholesterol Levels

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 14, 2000 (New Orleans) -- A new, needle-free skin test can quickly and accurately measure your cholesterol level. The painless, three-minute exam could soon help doctors determine your best course of treatment and may even become a convenient tool for monitoring your cholesterol level at home.

"In essence, we've found a very simple, noninvasive strategy to look at cholesterol values, and it appears to help us predict the degree and presence of [heart] disease," says study leader Dennis L. Sprecher, MD, preventive cardiology section head at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Sprecher presented his findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

The new system involves placing a few drops of test liquid on the fleshy portion of the palm. If cholesterol is present, the liquid reacts by changing color.

The researchers initially tested about 250 patients who were scheduled to have an X-ray of their blood vessels. The higher the patient's skin test score, the more likely that he or she also would have clogged arteries, or atherosclerosis. The results were similar when they tested another 150 patients.

"We found that the skin cholesterol level did indeed correlate with whether there was any disease at all," Sprecher says. "We also found that the test results correlated with the degree of disease." The association held "even after [taking into account] other risk factors such as age, smoking, and [blood] cholesterol," he says. There was no such correlation seen between the skin test and diabetes, high blood pressure, or body mass index.

While a standard test measures cholesterol in the blood, the new test measures cholesterol in the top, dead layer of skin. The two are not necessarily related, Sprecher says, and someone can have high skin levels, but low blood levels, or vice versa.

The skin test may represent "something more telling and predictive" than blood levels, although it isn't absolutely clear just yet, Sprecher tells WebMD. "We don't know how directly connected it is to disease, [but] one could argue that if cholesterol doesn't get into the tissue, it can't form plaque. So that's why we think skin cholesterol, rather than cholesterol floating in the blood, is a good marker."

"What you don't want is to have people falsely reassured by a test when we don't know what [it] means yet," says Rose Marie Robertson, MD, president of the American Heart Association. "That's always the risk of a new test."

According to Sprecher, however, the study results offer proof that the concept of the test works. "This is an entirely new arena," he says, and where it goes from here depends, at least in part, on results of much larger, ongoing trials.

"This could become a consumer product," he tells WebMD. "We now know that skin cholesterol drops with [the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs], so this could be a compliance tool for the consumer. People could use it on a weekly basis to see where their skin levels are going." To make it to market, however, "it will have to be as simple as a home pregnancy test. And that," he says, "is very doable."

"If there are patients who are reluctant to get even a finger stick, but are willing to put a few drops of liquid on their skin, and this test turns out to be predictive, then it would be useful," says Robertson, who also is vice chair of academic affairs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Sprecher tells WebMD that the cost should be comparable to, and probably less than, a standard blood test.

Skin test developer International Medical Innovations funded the research. Sprecher tells WebMD that he is a medical consultant for, but holds no financial interest in, the company.