Oxford scientists to investigate new early warning scan for heart attacks

29 August 2017        

Category: Research

Doctors could soon be able to use a special imaging technique to find people at risk of a heart attack. 

3D scan of an non inflamed artery, left, and an inflamed one on the right

The new imaging technique highlights are of inflammation which are shown by the colour red. The image on the left shows a non-flamed artery, while the image on the right shows one that is inflamed. 

Scientists at the University of Oxford have developed a new type of imaging test, based on Computed Tomography (CT) angiography, that could provide an early warning of coronary heart disease. They have now been awarded a grant of £287,000 by the BHF to carry out a large study to investigate whether it can accurately predict future cardiac problems, bringing this test to the patients.

Current diagnostic methods rely on detecting damage that has already been caused to the structure of the coronary arteries. However, the new method can identify changes that take place in fat surrounding arteries during the early stages of disease. 

A heart attack is caused when a fatty plaque on the wall of the artery ruptures. This can lead to the formation of a clot, blocking the blood supply to the heart and causing a heart attack. 

As these deadly plaques develop, they release signals which prevent small fat cells turning into mature ones. By measuring specific imaging features of fat content in CT images,  the researchers believe they can find people with the most dangerous plaques.

Predicting disease

In order to establish the effectiveness of the technique, the new scan will be performed on people who are having procedures to treat coronary heart disease, and those who are at earlier stages of the condition. 

By analysing the new images and comparing them to previously taken scans, the scientists hope to establish whether they can accurately predict the development of disease, the risk of cardiac events, and identify the specific plaques that cause heart attacks. Doctors could then use this information to treat at-risk people earlier giving them a better chance of avoiding life-threatening heart problems.

Professor Charalambos Antoniades, who is leading the research at Oxford University, said: “Currently, CT scans can only identify people who have significant disease in their heart vessels. But by then the disease has already caused damage which cannot be undone. 

“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, they can be used by doctors as the trigger for an aggressive course of treatment designed to reduce the risk of a future heart attack.”

Two images showing artery inflammation

The new scan allows 3D images of inflammation around the artery to be created. On the left, a cross sectional view shows inflammation (in red) surrounding the artery. The same artery is pictured on the right but the location and nature of the inflammation is harder to determine.

Potential new tool

Dr Victoria Taylor, Senior Research Adviser at the BHF, said: “CT scans are non-invasive and taken as a matter of routine so this research has the potential to provide doctors with a really useful new tool finding at-risk patients. 

“Heart attacks are one of the leading causes of death and ill health in the UK. That is why we continue to need the public’s support so that we can fund the research that can transform the way we understand and treat heart disease.”

In the UK there are 188,000 hospital visits each year due to heart attacks: that's one every three minutes. The BHF is the UK’s largest funder of cardiovascular research funding more than half of all academic heart research carried out in hospitals and universities. Heart and circulatory disease is still responsible for a quarter of all UK deaths and seven million people currently live with its burden.