Researchers say a novel chemical imaging technique, called Attenuated Total Reflection Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopic Imaging (ATR-FTIR imaging), may one day help fight atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the disease underlying most heart attacks and strokes and it is characterized by lesions in the arteries, made of fats, collagen and cells.
The lesions cause artery walls to harden and thicken, which severely restricts the flow of blood around the body and they can also rupture, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
And thus it is necessary to understand the precise chemical composition of an individual's lesions because the ones with higher levels of a type of fat called cholesteryl ester are more prone to rupture.
The researchers who developed the new imaging technique believe that with further refinement, it could become a useful tool for doctors wanting to assess a patient's lesions.
For example, by combining fiber optic technology with ATR-FTIR imaging, the researchers believe doctors could carry out real-time inspections of patients with atherosclerosis, in order to assess the progress of the disease and establish which patients are at the greatest risk of complications.
Presently, doctors can use ultrasound to assess the size and location of lesions but they need to take biopsies of lesions in order to determine their chemistry, which is a complex and invasive procedure.
The researchers have said that the ATR-FTIR imaging could potentially improve current imaging techniques because it could combine imaging and chemical analysis, which would provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of a patient's lesions in one procedure.
In the current study, they demonstrated that ATR-FTIR imaging was able to reveal the precise composition and size of the lesions and the levels of elastin, collagen and cholesteryl ester in them.
The new imaging technology works by using infrared light to identify different chemical molecules, which are mapped by an array detector to create a 'chemical photograph'.
The technique was used to study the effects of age and an amino acid called L-arginine on the composition of lesions in cholesterol-fed rabbits, which confirmed that dietary L-arginine could remove lesions in the arteries of mature rabbits.
The researchers have said that further studies need to be done before the ATR-FTIR imaging could be used for patient care.
The study has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.