Researchers in Switzerland have developed a non-invasive technique for imaging the carotid artery, which could provide an earlier ad more reliable measurement of cardiovascular disease risk than other imaging methods.

The new technique is called volumetric multi-spectral optoacoustic tomography (vMSOT) and research findings about it have been published in the journal Radiology.

Other imaging methods can reveal the extent of narrowing in the carotid arteries but are less helpful in determining the makeup of the plaque itself.

“Rapid characterisation of tissue function and molecular composition is limited with these modalities, which commonly results in poor diagnostic accuracy and ineffective treatments,” said Dr Daniel Razansky, lead researcher and director of the Functional and Molecular Imaging Lab at the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Similar to an ultrasound, vMSOT is performed with a handheld device that is moved around the neck. However, vMSOT uses spectroscopy to investigate tissue at a molecular scale, which can provide information about the artery that would not be possible with other methods. It can also detect lipids, melanin and other disease-related biomarkers early enough to provide a larger range of treatment options.

“Unlike most other clinical imaging modalities mainly looking at late-stage anatomical manifestations of diseases," Razansky says, "vMSOT is capable of sensing specific molecules in tissues without administration of contrast agents."

During the study, researchers used the vMSOT imaging technique on 16 healthy participants and compared their results with those who had undergone a conventional ultrasound. The vMSOT was able to noninvasively and instantaneously assess the entire bifurcation area of the carotid artery in 3D.

In the future, the researchers have suggested that vMSOT could be combined with ultrasound to create a more comprehensive characterisation of the carotid artery.

“Given its fast imaging performance, excellent molecular contrast, portability and affordability, I truly believe that vMSOT will soon be routinely used in the clinic,” said Razansky. “One day, it may even become as popular as ultrasound.”