Scientists are looking for molecules in the body that can be used to screen individuals and identify those at the highest risk.
Professor Gordon Ferns, Professor of Medical Education at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), run by the universities of Brighton and Sussex, will be discussing the research in his inaugural lecture on Tuesday next week (12 November).
He said: "We want to identify individuals who are most likely to develop heart disease and be able to intervene early in the progress.
"We are looking for new treatments to stop fatal outcomes such as heart attacks and strokes which, according to the British Heart Foundation, affect 2.6 million people in the UK, cause one in three deaths and cost the NHS £9 billion a year."
His publication this year, in the Annals of Clinical Biochemistry, with researchers at the University of Mashhad in Iran, discussed one line of research that could lead to early identification of people at risk.
A study of 758 patients in Iran, found a link between a specific marker known as 'high sensitive C-reactive protein (hs-CRP)' and the evidence of oxidative stress on cells which causes cardiovascular disease, as well as the traditional risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
"This research develops a new way of assessing risk to this disease."
Current risk assessments, he said, do not adequately predict those who will go on to develop this disease. "We are analysing the mechanisms behind the causes of the disease, to contribute to the searching for better markers and therapies."
Professor Ferns said research is also underway to study damage to blood vessels caused by free radicals which are highly-reactive molecules which interact with protein, fats and DNA and damage cells and tissue.
He said: "Our blood vessels can be damaged by free radicals – highly reactive molecules produced during normal metabolism – which interact with proteins, fats and DNA, to cause cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, have the potential to reduce the effects of free radicals.
"And heat shock proteins, which are induced in response to a free radical attack, can restore proteins back to their natural function, but in turn can activate the immune system to attack its own tissue and cells. Research is needed to explore the complex relationships of these molecules."
Professor Ferns is also looking for drugs to lower cholesterol levels and reduce heart attacks in patients who do not respond to statins. He is a key collaborator in a £300,000 research project led by Dr Ernesto Oviedo-Orta at the University of Surrey to find molecular agents to reduce excess cholesterol which causes plaque to from in blood vessels and arteries causing heart failure or stroke.
Professor Ferns said: "While lifestyle changes and statins have been prescribed for certain patients this is not applicable to everyone. So finding an alternative therapy to reduce the impact of cholesterol is needed."
Professor Ferns joined BSMS in October 2012 as Professor of Medical Education. His inaugural lecture: At the heart of the matter: a calculated risk? is on 12 November at 6:30pm at the Asa Briggs Lecture Theatre, Checkland Building at the University of Brighton's Falmer campus BN1 9PH.