Scanners spot heart attack risk
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh say they have discovered a way of predicting who is at greatest risk of a heart attack.
They used PET-CT scanners, which are used in major teaching hospitals, to detect fatty blockages in the heart.
Heart disease kills about 8,000 people every year in Scotland.
There is currently no way of predicting who will be affected other than by making general assumptions based on lifestyle and family history.
PET-CT scanners combine two types of scanning techniques to produce accurate images of the body.
CT scans show the structures of the heart. PET scans show up blood vessels where the body is healing itself in response to injury.
Researchers, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), used PET-CT scanners to look at the hearts of 80 volunteers who had already suffered a heart attack or were suffering from angina - putting them at high risk of an attack.
Writing in the Lancet, they said that the fatty plaques, which cause heart attacks, showed up as bright yellow in the scans.
About 90% of patients who had already had a heart attack had a lit-up area in one of their blood vessels.
These highlighted areas were in exactly the same location as the fatty blockage which caused their heart attack.
About 40% of patients with angina had a plaque which lit up yellow, suggesting a heart attack may be imminent.
If the technique is proved effective, the researchers said it would be the first time medics had been able to accurately predict who was in danger.
They could then be treated with drugs or surgery.
Dr Nik Joshi, from the University of Edinburgh team working on the research, said: "We have shown, for the first time, that high risk fatty plaques - on the verge of potentially causing a heart attack - can be detected on a PET-CT scan in the arteries supplying the heart with blood.
"If we are now able to identify patients at highest risk of having a heart attack, we could possibly take steps to prevent this catastrophic event. This could fundamentally change the way we approach and manage these patients, reducing their risk of a future heart attack."
PET-CT scanners are extremely expensive and also involve a small dose of radiation - making their use on a large-scale difficult.
However, like all diagnostic technology, it is likely to become cheaper and more widely available in future.
Prof Peter Weissberg, medical director at the BHF, which part-funded the research, said: "Nearly 20 years of BHF-funded research has led us to this point. We now need to confirm these findings, and then understand how best to use new tests like this in the clinic to benefit heart patients."