What is Intravascular ultrasound (IVUS)?

IVUS is a medical imaging methodology using a specially designed catheter with a miniaturized ultrasound probe attached to the distal end of the catheter. The proximal end of the catheter is attached to computerized ultrasound equipment. It allows the application of ultrasound technology, such as piezoelectric transducer or CMUT, to see from inside blood vessels out through the surrounding blood column, visualizing the endothelium (inner wall) of blood vessels in living individuals.

The arteries of the heart (the coronary arteries) are the most frequent imaging target for IVUS. IVUS is used in the coronary arteries to determine the amount of atheromatous plaque built up at any particular point in the epicardial coronary artery. The progressive accumulation of plaque within the artery wall over decades is the setup for vulnerable plaque which, in turn, leads to heart attack and stenosis (narrowing) of the artery (known as coronary artery lesions). IVUS is of use to determine both plaque volume within the wall of the artery and/or the degree of stenosis of the artery lumen. It can be especially useful in situations in which angiographic imaging is considered unreliable; such as for the lumen of ostial lesions or where angiographic images do not visualize lumen segments adequately, such as regions with multiple overlapping arterial segments. It is also used to assess the effects of treatments of stenosis such as with hydraulic angioplasty expansion of the artery, with or without stents, and the results of medical therapy over time.

Uses

To visualize an artery or vein, angiographic techniques are used and the physician positions the tip of a guidewire, usually 0.36 mm (0.014") diameter with a very soft and pliable tip and about 200 cm long. The physician steers the guidewire from outside the body, through angiography catheters and into the blood vessel branch to be imaged.

The blood vessel wall inner lining, atheromatous disease within the wall and connective tissues covering the outer surface of the blood vessel are echogenic, i.e. they return echoes making them visible on the ultrasound display.

IVUS has been the best technology, so far, to demonstrate the anatomy of the artery wall in living animals and humans. It has led to an explosion of better understanding and research on both the behavior of the atherosclerosis process and the effects of different treatment strategies for changing the evolution of the atherosclerosis disease process. This has been important given that atherosclerosis is the single most frequent disease process for the greatest percentage of individuals living in first world countries.

While the routine use of IVUS during percutaneous coronary intervention does not improve short term outcomes, there are a number of situations in which IVUS is of particular use in the treatment of coronary artery disease of the heart. In particular in cases when the degree of stenosis of a coronary artery is unclear, IVUS can directly quantify the percentage of stenosis and give insight into the anatomy of the plaque.

One particular use of IVUS in the coronary anatomy is in the quantification of left main disease in cases where routine coronary angiography gives equivocal results. Many studies in the past have shown that significant left main disease can increase mortality, and that intervention (either coronary artery bypass graft surgery or percutaneous coronary intervention) to reduce mortality is necessary when the left main stenosis is significant.

When using IVUS to determine whether an individual's left main disease is clinically significant, in terms of the desirability of physical intervention, the two most widely used parameters are the degree of stenosis and the minimal lumen area. A cross sectional area of ≤7 mm² in a symptomatic individual or ≤6 mm² in an asymptomatic individual is considered to be clinically significant and warrants intervention to improve one-year mortality. However, these exact cutoffs are up for debate and different cutoff cross-sectional areas may be used in practice depending on differing interpretations of the trial data.