June 14 (UPI) -- Sensitivity to an allergen in red meat has been linked to heart disease, according to a study.
Although high saturated fat levels in red meat have been with associated with the buildup of plaque in the heart's arteries, researchers for the first time found that some people face an increased risk because of an allergen in red meat. The new findings were published Thursday in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.
Food allergies are a common cause of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause airways to constrict and blood pressure to drop dangerously low. In 2017, researchers published a study in Allergy that found the allergy is to a sugar molecule called galactose-α-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, found in beef, pork, lamb and other red meats.
Researchers also found bites from the Lone Star tick can sensitize people to the allergen -- an explanation for why the allergy is more common in the southeastern United States.
The researchers estimated that 1 percent of the population in some areas may have an allergy to red meat, but it's presence may be as high as 20 percent when considering people without full-blown symptoms.
Unlike other food reactions, the reaction can take between 3 and 6 hours, as opposed to starting within about 30 minutes of eating. And the only trick for red meat allergy is strict avoidance of all types of red meat.
The researchers for the first time identified a specific blood marker for red meat allergy -- a type of antibody that is specific to the alpha-Gal allergen -- that was associated with higher levels of arterial plaque, or fatty deposits on the inner lining of the arteries.
Researchers analyzed blood samples from 118 adults, finding antibodies to alpha-Gal in 26 percent of them.
By using an imaging procedure, they found that the quantity of plaque was 30 percent higher in the alpha-Gal sensitized patients than in the non-sensitized patients. This, combined with the plaques being more structurally unstable, suggests a higher risk of heart attack and stroke for these patients.
"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," study leader Dr. Coleen McNamara, a professor of medicine in the Cardiovascular Research Center of the University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, said in a press release. "These preliminary findings underscore the need for further clinical studies in larger populations from diverse geographic regions and additional laboratory work."
Researchers plan to conduct detailed animal and human studies to confirm their initial findings.
"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," said Dr. Ahmed Hasan, a medical officer and program director in National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Atherothrombosis & Coronary Artery Disease Branch.