Chest CT’s Untapped Potential

A new AJR study out of Toronto General Hospital highlighted the largely-untapped potential of non-gated chest CT CAC scoring, and the significant impact it could have with widespread adoption.

Current guidelines recommend visual CAC evaluations with all non-gated non-contrast chest CTs. However, these guidelines aren’t consistently followed and they exclude contrast-enhanced chest CTs.

The researchers challenged these practices, performing visual CAC assessments on 260 patients’ non-gated chest CT exams (116 contrast-enhanced, 144 non-contrast) and comparing them to the same patients’ cardiac CT CAC scores (performed within 12-months) and ~6-year cardiac event outcomes.

As you might expect, visual contrast-enhanced and non-contrast chest CT CAC scoring:  

  • Detected CAC with high sensitivity (83% & 90%) and specificity (both 100%)
  • Accurately predicted major cardiac events (Hazard ratios: 4.5 & 3.4)
  • Had relatively benign false negatives (0 of 26 had cardiac events)
  • Achieved high inter-observer agreement (κ=0.89 & 0.95)

The Takeaway

Considering that CAC scores were only noted in 37% of the patients’ original non-contrast chest CT reports and 23% of their contrast-enhanced chest CT reports, this study adds solid evidence in favor of more widespread CAC score reporting in non-gated CT exams.

That might also prove to be good news for the folks working on opportunistic CAC AI solutions, noting that AI has (so far) seen the greatest adoption when it supports processes that most radiologists are actually doing.

UCSF Automates CAC Scoring

UCSF is now using AI to automatically screen all of its routine non-contrast chest CTs for elevated coronary artery calcium scores (CAC scores), representing a major milestone for an AI use case that was previously limited to academic studies and future business strategies.

UCSF’s Deployment UCSF becomes the first medical center to deploy the end-to-end AI CAC scoring system that it developed with Stanford and Bunkerhill Health earlier this year. The new system automatically identifies elevated CAC scores in non-gated / non-contrast chest CTs, creating an “opportunistic screening pathway” that allows UCSF physicians to identify high-CAC patients and get them into treatment.

Why This is a Big Deal – Over 20m chest CTs are performed in the U.S. annually and each of those scans contains insights into patients’ cardiac health. However, an AI model like this would be required to extract cardiac data from the majority of CT scans (CAC isn’t visible to humans in non-gated CTs) and efficiently interpret them (there’s far too many images). This AI system’s path from academic research to clinical deployment seems like a big deal too.

The Commercial Impact – Most health systems don’t have the AI firepower of Stanford and UCSF, but they certainly produce plenty of chest CTs and should want to identify more high-risk patients while treatable (especially if they’re also risk holders). Meanwhile, there’s growing commercial efforts from companies like Cleerly and Nanox.AI to create opportunistic CAC screening pathways for all these health systems that can’t develop their own CAC AI workflows (or prefer not to).

Silent Atherosclerosis

A new study in Circulation used coronary CTA scans and CAC scoring to reveal a surprisingly high prevalence of “silent” coronary artery atherosclerosis in the general population, suggesting that this could “lay the foundation” for future CT-based cardiac screening programs.

The Study – The researchers analyzed CCTA and CAC exams from 25k randomly recruited Swedish participants (50-64yrs, none w/ known coronary heart disease) finding that:

  • 42% had CCTA-detected atherosclerosis
  • 8.3% had noncalcified plaques
  • 5.2% had significant stenosis
  • 1.9% had serious coronary artery diseases
  • All participants with >400 CAC scores had atherosclerosis (yes, 100%), and 45.7% had significant stenosis
  • Some participants with 0 CAC scores had atherosclerosis (5.5%) and significant stenosis (0.4%)
  • So, CAC-based screening might still miss some at-risk patients

The Takeaway – 2021 brought a notable surge in academic and business efforts focused on CT-based cardiac screening, and this study’s revelation about “silent” atherosclerosis in the general population suggests that cardiac screening’s momentum will continue.

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-- The Imaging Wire team