Catheter-based intravascular imaging modalities are being developed to visualize pathologies in coronary arteries, such as high-risk vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques known as thin-cap fibroatheroma, to guide therapeutic strategy at preventing heart attacks. Mounting evidences have shown three distinctive histopathological features-the presence of a thin fibrous cap, a lipid-rich necrotic core, and numerous infiltrating macrophages-are key markers of increased vulnerability in atherosclerotic plaques. To visualize these changes, the majority of catheter-based imaging modalities used intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) as the technical foundation and integrated emerging intravascular imaging techniques to enhance the characterization of vulnerable plaques. However, no current imaging technology is the unequivocal "gold standard" for the diagnosis of vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques. Each intravascular imaging technology possesses its own unique features that yield valuable information although encumbered by inherent limitations not seen in other modalities. In this context, the aim of this review is to discuss current scientific innovations, technical challenges, and prospective strategies in the development of IVUS-based multi-modality intravascular imaging systems aimed at assessing atherosclerotic plaque vulnerability.
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