Atheroma - Evolution of Strategies and Changing Focus

Evolution of Strategies and Changing Focus

The sudden nature of the complications of pre-existing atheroma, vulnerable plaque (non-occlusive or soft plaque), have led, since the 1950s, to the development of intensive care units and complex medical and surgical interventions. Angiography and later cardiac stress testing was begun to either visualize or indirectly detect stenosis. Next came bypass surgery, to plumb transplanted veins, sometimes arteries, around the stenoses and more recently angioplasty, now including stents, most recently drug coated stents, to stretch the stenoses more open.

Yet despite these medical advances, with success in reducing the symptoms of angina and reduced blood flow, atheroma rupture events remain the major problem and still sometimes result in sudden disability and death despite even the most rapid, massive and skilled medical and surgical intervention available anywhere today. According to some clinical trials, bypass surgery and angioplasty procedures have had at best a minimal effect, if any, on improving overall survival. Typically mortality of by-pass operations is from 1–4%, of angioplasty about 1–1.5%.

Additionally, these vascular interventions are often done only after an individual is symptomatic, often already partially disabled, as a result of the disease. It is also clear that both angioplasty and by-pass interventions do not prevent future heart attack.

The older methods for understanding atheroma, dating to before World War II, relied on autopsy data. Autopsy data has long shown initiation of fatty streaks in later childhood with slow asymptomatic progression over decades.

One way to see atheroma is the very invasive and costly IVUS ultrasound technology; it gives us the precise volume of the inside intima plus the central media layers of about 2.5 cm (1 in) of artery length. Unfortunately, it gives no information about the structural strength of the artery. Angiography does not visualize atheroma; it only makes the blood flow within blood vessels visible. Alternative methods that are non or less physically invasive and less expensive per individual test have been used and are continuing to be developed, such as those using computed tomography (CT; led by the Electron Beam Tomography form, given its greater speed) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The most promising since the early 1990s has been EBT, detecting calcification within the atheroma before most individuals start having clinically recognized symptoms and debility. Interestingly, statin therapy (to lower cholesterol) does not slow the speed of calcification as determined by CT scan. MRI coronary vessel wall imaging, although currently limited to research studies, has demonstrated the ability to detect vessel wall thickening in asymptomatic high risk individuals (reference - Kim 2002, Circulation). As a non-invasive, ionising radiation free technique, MRI based techniques could have future uses in monitoring disease progression and regression. Most visualization techniques are used in research, they are not widely available to most patients, have significant technical limitations, have not been widely accepted and generally are not covered by medical insurance carriers.

From human clinical trials, it has become increasingly evident that a more effective focus of treatment is slowing, stopping and even partially reversing the atheroma growth process. There are several prospective epidemiologic studies including the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study and the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), which have supported a direct correlation of CIMT with myocardial infarction and stroke risk in patients without cardiovascular disease history. The ARIC Study was conducted in 15,792 individuals between 5 and 65 years of age in 4 different regions of the USA between 1987 and 1989. The baseline CIMT was measured and measurements were repeated at 4–7 year intervals by carotid B mode ultrasonography in this study. An increase in CIMT was correlated with an increased risk for CAD. The CHS was initiated in 1988, and the relationship of CIMT with risk of myocardial infarction and stroke was investigated in 4,476 subjects ≤65 years of age. At the end of approximately 6 years of follow-up, CIMT measurements were correlated with cardiovascular events.

Paroi artérielle et Risque Cardiovasculaire in Asia Africa/Middle East and Latin America (PARC-AALA) is another important large-scale study, in which 79 centers from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America participated, and the distribution of CIMT according to different ethnic groups and its association with the Framingham cardiovascular score was investigated. Multi-linear regression analysis revealed that an increased Framingham cardiovascular score was associated with CIMT, and carotid plaque independent of geographic differences.

Cahn et al. prospectively followed-up 152 patients with coronary artery disease for 6–11 months by carotid artery ultrasonography and noted 22 vascular events (myocardial infarction, transient ischemic attack, stroke, and coronary angioplasty) within this time period. They concluded that carotid atherosclerosis measured by this non-interventional method has prognostic significance in coronary artery patients.

In the Rotterdam Study, Bots et al. followed 7,983 patients >55 years of age for a mean period of 4.6 years, and reported 194 incident myocardial infarctions within this period. CIMT was significantly higher in the myocardial infarction group compared to the other group. Demircan et al. found that the CIMT of patients with acute coronary syndrome were significantly increased compared to patients with stable angina pectoris.

It has been reported in another study that a maximal CIMT value of 0.956 mm had 85.7% sensitivity and 85.1% specificity to predict angiographic CAD. The study group consisted of patients admitted to the cardiology outpatient clinic with symptoms of stable angina pectoris. The study showed CIMT was higher in patients with significant CAD than in patients with non-critical coronary lesions. Regression analysis revealed that thickening of the mean intima-media complex more than 1.0 was predictive of significant CAD our patients. There was incremental significant increase in CIMT with the number coronary vessel involved. In accordance with the literature, it was found that CIMT was significantly higher in the presence of CAD. Furthermore, CIMT was increased as the number of involved vessels increased and the highest CIMT values were noted in patients with left main coronary involvement. However, human clinical trials have been slow to provide clinical & medical evidence, partly because the asymptomatic nature of atheromata make them especially difficult to study. Promising results are found using Carotid Intima Media Thickness Scanning (CIMT can be measured by B-mode ultrasonography), B-vitamins that reduce a protein corrosive, homocysteine and that reduce neck carotid artery plaque volume and thickness, and stroke, even in late-stage disease.

Additionally, understanding what drives atheroma development is complex with multiple factors involved, only some of which, such as lipoproteins, more importantly lipoprotein subclass analysis, blood sugar levels and hypertension are best known and researched. More recently, some of the complex immune system patterns that promote, or inhibit, the inherent inflammatory macrophage triggering processes involved in atheroma progression are slowly being better elucidated in animal models of atherosclerosis.

A 4 minute animation of the atherosclerosis process, entitled "Pathogenesis of Acute MI", commissioned by Paul M. Ridker, MD, MPH, FACC, FAHA, at the Harvard Medical School, can be viewed at . While the animation contains a few technical errors, partly due to the great difficulty/complexity of making a truly accurate presentation, it correctly illustrates the principal issues.

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