The leading cause of major morbidity and mortality in most countries around the world is atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, most commonly caused by thrombotic occlusion of a high-risk coronary plaque resulting in myocardial infarction or cardiac death, or embolization from a high-risk carotid plaque resulting in stroke. The lesions prone to result in such clinical events are termed vulnerable or high-risk plaques, and their identification may lead to the development of pharmacological and mechanical intervention strategies to prevent such events. Autopsy studies from patients dying of acute myocardial infarction or sudden death have shown that such events typically arise from specific types of atherosclerotic plaques, most commonly the thin-cap fibroatheroma. However, the search in human beings for vulnerable plaques before their becoming symptomatic has been elusive. Recently, the PROSPECT (Providing Regional Observations to Study Predictors of Events in the Coronary Tree) study demonstrated that coronary plaques that are likely to cause future cardiac events, regardless of angiographic severity, are characterized by large plaque burden and small lumen area and/or are thin-cap fibroatheromas verified by radiofrequency intravascular ultrasound imaging. This study opened the door to identifying additional invasive and noninvasive imaging modalities that may improve detection of high-risk atherosclerotic lesions and patients. Beyond classic risk factors, novel biomarkers and genetic profiling may identify those patients in whom noninvasive imaging for vulnerable plaque screening, followed by invasive imaging for risk confirmation is warranted, and in whom future pharmacological and/or device-based focal or regional therapies may be applied to improve long-term prognosis.
Copyright © 2012 American College of Cardiology Foundation. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.