Medics find pigment in our bile that can protect against heart attacks

Heart, News & Analysis

26th November 2015

Elevated levels of a bile pigment called bilirubin could protect us from cardiovascular disease, according to research carried out at Griffith University’s Menzies Health Institute in Queensland.

Bile is a fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder which aids the digestion process.

The research, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, suggests that mildly elevated levels of bilirubin may provide natural protection from heart attacks and help to stave off cardiovascular disease.

Dr Andrew Bulmer’s study shows that when hearts are infused with bilirubin following a heart attack, the pigment reduces damage and improves heart function during recovery.

He said: ‘This is a very important finding as very few drugs are able to be administered following a heart attack to improve heart function. Generally, if it is a small heart attack people can survive. However, there is a 20 per cent mortality rate from heart attack, with approximately 50,000 heart attack sufferers each year in Australia.

‘Generally, bilirubin was just associated with people having jaundice; however we have now shown that mildly elevated bilirubin is actually beneficial, naturally protecting an individual against cardiovascular disease.’

It is estimated that between five and ten per cent of the population have mildly elevated levels of bilirubin in their blood, a benign condition called Gilbert’s Syndrome. People with this syndrome have a 30 to 60 per cent lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease and a 50 per cent lower risk of dying from all causes.

Dr Bulmer says that his findings could improve life expectancy in people who have low levels of the pigment in blood.

‘Not only is there a benefit in being able to use bilirubin as a biomarker for measuring people’s future risk of various chronic diseases, there is a very real possibility it could be used as a treatment after a heart attack to reduce damage to the heart and possibly improve survival,’ he said.