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The life-threatening nature of heart attacks is made even worse by their unpredictable and sudden behaviour. Striking out of nowhere, the serious emergency requires immediate medical assistance, with minutes being able to make all the difference. Fortunately, new technology could predict heart attacks “years” before they happen.
The popular depiction of heart attacks usually includes a person being okay one minute replaced by an image of agonising chest pain the next.
While this can be how the medical emergency goes down, the processes that lay the groundwork for heart attacks could be identified earlier.
Research, published in the journal Radiology, suggests that high-tech scans could pick up patients at risk of a heart attack “years” before they might happen.
The method called “radiomics” combines data from CT (computed tomography) scans that can reveal signs of disease not visible in the images alone.
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Radiomics can help spot deposits of fat in artery walls that could later cut off the organ’s blood supply, triggering the medical emergency.
Fatty deposits, which are a dangerous cocktail of lipids and “bad” cholesterol, can trigger heart attacks but it’s hard to predict when they might rupture.
Co-lead author Dr Long Zhang said: “The results of this study are encouraging and exciting.
“Radiomics provided a more accurate approach to detect vulnerable plaques compared to conventional coronary CT angiography anatomical parameters.”
This technology could be a potential game-changer, enabling cholesterol-lowering medicines, known as statins, or other protective drugs to be prescribed at the earliest opportunity.
The Chinese team developed a model based on information from the CT scans of around 300 individuals.
The scan enabled the detection of life-threatening blood clots – another culprit that can trigger heart attacks – in just over 700 patients with suspected coronary artery disease.
A “high radiomic signature” was independently linked with potential heart attacks over an average follow-up period of three years.
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What’s more, this approach, which could help classify those at risk, would be easy to add into practice.
Dr Zhang said: “If the radiomics analysis is embedded into the routine CT angiography workstation, it can automatically identify vulnerable plaques for clinician review.
“Thus, radiomics may significantly improve the accuracy and precision of high-risk plaque detection in routine clinical practice.”
Heart attacks currently affect around 100,000 people in the UK annually, with CT scans being offered to about 40,000 Britons a year.
Dr Zhang’s system would enable hundreds of thousands of over 40s to undergo these scans.
The researcher and his colleagues are now building a radiomics model from different scanner types and vendors.
The team is also planning to conduct a larger study involving 10,000 patients.
He said: “With the support of large observational studies and randomized controlled trials, the radiomics approach may help guide clinical decision-making and improve patient care in the future.”
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