The technology, developed by teams at Oxford University and institutions in Germany and the United States, uses algorithms to examine the fat surrounding coronary arteries as it shows up on computed tomography (CT) heart scans.
The new heart attack warning system, called the Fat Attenuation Index (FAI), was tested in a large study published by The Lancet medical journal.
The study monitored the progress of 3,900 heart patients from Germany and the US for ten years after they had undergone a coronary CT scan or angiogram.
FAI predicted fatal heart attacks many years before they happened.
Fat gets altered when an artery becomes inflamed, serving as an early warning system for what one of the researchers believes could be up 30% of heart attacks.
“If you can identify inflammation in the arteries of the heart then you can say which arteries will cause heart attacks,” Oxford Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Charalambos Antoniades, said.
“With the new technology, we can achieve this by analyzing simple CT scans.”
Most heart attacks are caused by a build-up of plaque – a fatty deposit – inside the artery, which interrupts the flow of blood.
Currently, CT scans tell a doctor when an artery has already become narrowed by plaque.
With the new technology, for which the researchers hope to gain regulatory approval on both sides of the Atlantic within a year, doctors will be able to say which arteries are at risk of narrowing.
“(We) can say your arteries are inflamed, and a narrowing will be developed five years down the line. So maybe you can start preventive measures to avoid this formation of the plaques,” Antoniades said.
Heart disease and stroke are the two most significant causes of death worldwide.
“Although we have not estimated the exact number of heart attacks that we can prevent, we could potentially identify at least 20% or 30% of the people before they have (one),” Antoniades said.
An Oxford University spin-off company is now developing a service to analyze CT scans from across the globe in around 24 hours.