New scanning method detects heart problems before symptoms appear

Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new imaging method to provide an early warning of coronary artery disease and the risk of heart attacks.

Coronary artery disease occurs when atherosclerotic plaques build up in the arteries that serve the heart. These plaques cause the vessels to narrow, and when they block without warning they lead to a heart attack.

Current diagnostic methods detect damage that has already been caused by plaque – when the damage is irreversible and treatment options are limited.

The researchers discovered a bidirectional communication channel between the heart arteries and the fat surrounding them. They found that the fat surrounding these arteries ‘senses’ inflammation coming from the adjacent artery, resulting in altered fat composition. The new imaging technology, called perivascular fat attenuation indexing (FAI), tracks the changes in the fat surrounding inflamed arteries – even in the absence of visible plaques.

The technology also detects those “vulnerable” plaques that are prone to sudden blockages, flagging the individuals at highest risk for heart attacks.

The researchers behind the new imaging technique say it will improve the diagnosis and management of coronary artery disease, enabling early prevention. The findings have been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Professor Charalambos Antoniades, who leads the research team at Oxford, said: ‘Currently, CT scans can only identify people who have significant narrowings in their heart vessels. But by then the disease may have already caused damage which cannot be undone, and it is not possible to identify which narrowings might progress to cause a heart attack.’

‘The new scan offers the potential to find people at an earlier stage of disease and before the damage becomes irreversible. By providing an early warning of disease, the new imaging technique can be used by doctors as the trigger for more powerful treatments designed to reduce the risk of a future heart attack.’