New scan technology to identify early risk factors for a heart attack and cardiovascular disease 

Project Title: The NARNIA study – Novel Application of Radiotracers and Non-invasive Imaging techniques in Atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases
Lead Researcher:
Dr Nicola Giannotti

Cardiovascular diseases remain the major cause of death worldwide, despite intensive research and treatment of conventional risk factors. Atherosclerosis is the major underlying factor of most cardiovascular diseases. Current data shows that many patients experience stroke and cardiovascular diseases in the absence of traditional risk factors and despite receiving the best treatment. This highlights the dramatic need for newer mechanistic, diagnostic, and therapeutic insights into cardiovascular and atherosclerosis diseases assessment to improve early identification of high-risk patients.     

Dr Giannotti’s research aims to use the Ultra-High Sensitivity Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan to improve the assessment and diagnosis of high-risk atherosclerotic plaque responsible for cardiovascular events. It will allow functional whole-body imaging while exposing the patient to significantly less radiation and a shorter scan time.   

Traditionally, clinical management decisions of symptomatic atherosclerotic plaque causing heart attack and stroke have been based on the assessment of a portion of the blocked vessel. However, accumulated evidence indicates that inflammation and selected biological functional characteristics found within atherosclerotic plaque are of key importance in heart attack and stroke. Conventional imaging techniques generally fail to depict these functional characteristics. 

This new scan will move assessment from a purely structural approach to a combination of non-invasive assessments to provide better diagnostic insights and identify patients at a higher risk of cardiac disease.   

The Ultra-High Sensitivity PET scanner was commissioned in 2023 and is accessible through the University of Sydney research network. This represents a unique opportunity to leverage the technological potential of the Ultra-High Sensitivity PET scanner in non-invasive cardiovascular applications to improve early identification of high-risk patients and monitor therapeutic efficacy.