Six years ago, a handful of researchers at Lund University in Sweden started taking an interest in how to make it easier to recognise unstable plaques that in worst case scenarios rupture and cause heart attacks or strokes.
When Tobias Erlöv, who at the time was a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at the Lund Faculty of Engineering, discovered that there is a fairly simple mathematical calculation that can be used to interpret ultrasound signals and thereby figure out whether the plaque in the carotid artery is harmful or not, the researchers were somewhat surprised.
“We have shown that there is a strong correlation between changes in the centre frequency and the size of the reflecting particles. The more harmful substances, the greater the so-called centre frequency shift”, says Tobias Erlöv, who is currently continuing his research at the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
The method can be used to identify patients at risk of developing acute cardiovascular diseases, as well as to follow up after surgery where plaque has already been removed.
In the future, ultrasound scans of the carotid artery may lead to the ability to perform surgery at an earlier stage in some cases, and the ability to avoid surgery completely in others.
People with cardiovascular diseases, and diabetics who risk developing them, can benefit from this new and accurate method.
“Ultrasound enables you to screen a larger population, and that in turn means that life-threatening cardiovascular diseases can be detected at an earlier stage”, says Magnus Cinthio, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering and one of the researchers leading the work.
“Another advantage is that the method is inexpensive and completely harmless to patients”, says Tobias Erlöv.
More studies are needed before the innovation can be picked up by ultrasound manufacturers and used in healthcare facilities. Studies are already underway. The European research collaboration Summit is currently studying 1,500 patients.