Acute coronary syndromes (such as heart attacks) and strokes are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the U.S. and Europe. About 80% of those events occur because a build-up of plaque in the arteries—or atherosclerotic plaque (AP)—ruptures.

Research led by Kang Kim, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, recently received $2,996,514 over four years from the National Institutes of Health for work that will use super-resolution ultrasound (SRU) imaging to noninvasively detect APs that have a high chance of rupturing so that physicians can intervene.

“Over the past decade, researchers have been pushing for a way to identify rupture-prone APs,” says Kim, who holds appointments in both the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering and the School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine. 

“One thing that plays a critical role in AP rupture is when a new, dense network of blood vessels begin growing into the AP from the vasa vasorum, or the smaller vessels that supply larger arteries and veins,” Kim adds. “However, we don’t yet have the noninvasive tools to assess abnormal microvascular expansion in vivo, or inside the living body. That’s the problem this project is meant to solve.” 

The technology developed through this project seeks to shift the current imaging approach in identifying microvessels of AP from “intravascular,” or an ultrasound that uses a catheter to view the inside of the artery, to a “fully noninvasive transcutaneous” imaging approach, which instead can noninvasively see microvasculature.

If successful, the technology could be incorporated into current ultrasound scanners already in use to identify plaques at high risk of rupturing, allowing physicans to prescribe life-saving interventions and treatments to prevent a stroke.

“In addition to further evaluating our super resolution ultrasound imaging technology, I’m excited about determining if characteristics of the VV can be a predictive biomarker of AP rupture,” says Kim.