A new breakthrough in analyzing CT scans could allow doctors to detect signs of an impending heart attack years in advance using non-invasive methods, according to new research published in The Lancet and covered in a Reuters report.

Researchers in the US, Germany, and at Oxford University developed algorithms that assess the fat around coronary arteries in computed tomography (CT) scans of the heart. Certain changes in this fat are a sign of artery inflammation, which the researchers believe is responsible for almost a third of all heart attacks.

Most heart attacks are the result of plaque buildup in arteries, which blocks blood flow.

“If you are able to identify inflammation in the arteries of the heart then you can say which arteries … will cause heart attacks,” said Charalambos Antoniades, senior author of the research, speaking to Reuters. “With the new technology that we have we can achieve this by analyzing simple CT scans.”

CT scans are able to detect plaque buildup once it occurs, but currently, can’t assess risk in advance. By the time the buildup is detected “it’s likely to be already too late to intervene and reverse the narrowing in the artery that has already occurred over many years.”

At that point, doctors can either perform bypass surgery, grafting a vein to avoid the blockage, or put in a stent to prop open the narrowed passages.

In many cases, earlier signs are not detected at all, with a heart attack or stroke appearing as the first symptom.

According to Antoniades, the breakthrough will allow doctors to tell patients “your arteries are inflamed and a narrowing will be developed five years down the line. So maybe you can start preventive measures to avoid this formation of the plaques.”

“Although we have not estimated the exact number of heart attacks that we can prevent,” he said, “we could potentially identify at least 20 or 30 percent of the people” in advance.

According to an earlier study by Antoniades, patients could started on drugs such as statins to address the problem before it results in heart attack or stroke.

The researchers hope the technology will be approved by regulators within a year, and an Oxford University spin-off company is planning to offer a service to perform the new analysis of CT scans from around the world within 24 hours.

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