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The Making of Medicine

Meat Sensitivity Spread by Ticks Linked to Heart Disease

The meat allergy spread by ticks continues to get more interesting — and concerning. A team of our researchers led by Coleen McNamara, MD, has linked sensitivity to the allergen in meat to increased buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries of the heart.

Note that I said “sensitivity to the allergen in meat” rather than “the meat allergy.” That’s for a very important reason: The people the researchers looked at are sensitive to the allergen found in meat, but that doesn’t mean they have the meat allergy.


It turns out that people can develop the sensitivity to this allergen found in red meat but never show symptoms. Unlike people with the meat allergy, they can eat meat just fine — no hives, no trouble breathing, none of the other symptoms usually associated with the meat allergy.

But that’s particularly troubling. That means there are people who are unaware they are sensitive to the allergen who may be at increased risk for heart disease and other problems. Potentially a lot of people. Up to 20 percent of people — or more — in some places.

“This novel finding from a small group of subjects examined at the University of Virginia raises the intriguing possibility that asymptomatic allergy to red meat may be an under-recognized factor in heart disease,” said Dr. McNamara, of our Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center and our Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

Looking at 118 patients, the researchers determined that those sensitive to the meat allergen had 30 percent more plaque accumulation inside their arteries than those without the sensitivity. Further, the plaques had a higher percentage with features characteristic of unstable plaques that are more likely to cause heart attacks.

That’s worrisome, yes, but bear in mind this research is very preliminary, and more work needs to be done. Dr. McNamara and her fellow researchers looked at a small group of patients, and they need to look at a much larger group. They found an association between the allergen sensitivity and the plaque buildup, but they haven’t determined that the sensitivity is causing the buildup. They need to do much more lab work to determine what might be happening.

The good news is they believe they can develop a blood test to determine who has the sensitivity, even among the asymptomatic. We’ll keep you posted.

MORE: What people with the meat allergy need to know about this discovery.

EVEN MORE: A person with the meat allergy describes what it’s like.

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