SonoSite’s New Push: Ultrasound for an Up-Close Look at Heart Attack Risk

7/26/10Follow @xconomy

Now I say this for sure, I’m not going to drop dead from a heart attack anytime soon.

Sure, I’ve seen the doctor before and had all the usual heart disease tests done—cholesterol counts, measurements of fat in the blood (triglycerides), blood pressure, the old-fashioned family history. But now I got some unequivocal signs on a high-resolution screen, which I could see in real-time, about how my arteries looked during an ultrasound scan at Bothell, WA-based SonoSite (NASDAQ: SONO).

SonoSite is pitching doctors on using ultrasound as one more tool in the endless battle to help predict, and possibly prevent, life-threatening cardiovascular events. The company is urging primary care doctors to use its portable ultrasound imaging machines to look inside a couple of arteries, to see precisely just how much plaque is building up there.

The company is so pumped about what this test can do, it invited me over to its offices last week to experience it firsthand. Even though I’m not personally worried about having a heart attack or stroke, and I certainly wouldn’t spend my own time and hard-earned money on such a test, I figured I’d give it a try because so many people are curious. Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin (Lipitor) became the world’s best-selling drug with more than $12 billion in annual sales based on the notion that it could help people lower their risk of cardiovascular disease beyond improving their diet and exercise. In a country where junk food and the sedentary lifestyle rule, there are plenty of doctors looking for ways to strike genuine fear into patients with a new, more visual way of illustrating serious health risks. An estimated one in three people die from cardiovascular disease.

“There’s a whole community in medicine now that is serious about wanting to help people avoid a heart attack,” says SonoSite CEO Kevin Goodwin.

Kevin Goodwin

Kevin Goodwin

The test, which has actually been around a few years, is what’s called the Carotid Intima-Media Thickness (CIMT) exam. This is a measurement of the two inner layers of the carotid artery—an artery on each side of the neck that supplies the brain with blood. Studies over the past 20 years have shown that a thickening of this arterial wall can be an early sign of heart disease risk, at least when people are compared with peers of the same age, race, and gender.

SonoSite’s idea is to make this test fast and easy enough so that a primary care physician can incorporate it into his or her ordinary workday. SonoSite sells the doctor a $4,000 software upgrade, loaded with algorithms to analyze data on arterial thickness, and installs it on one of the company’s portable ultrasound machines. The exam itself usually takes 10 minutes or less.

Sharon Hall, one of the company’s sonographers, showed me how this works inside an exam room at the company. She ran the ultrasound probe along the right side of my neck, and then … Next Page »

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  • Pey

    Luke,

    I enjoyed your article very much. I work in cardiology research in Seattle and use SonoSite’s ultrasound machine on a daily basis. I routinely peek into patient’s carotid arteries and measure IMT readings, preparing papers for scientific journals and notifying their doctors if we see advanced stenosis, or narrowing of the arteries.

    Though the intent of your article I’m sure was to explore SonoSite’s potential profitability, I’d just like to clarify one point here: Your carotid IMT layer, or any other measure of what is happening in those arteries in the neck, is an indicator of your stroke risk, rather than heart attack risk. Risk of stroke is particularly accelerated by high blood pressure and smoking while risk of heart attack has more to do with cholesterol.

    Believe it or not, the two aren’t necessarily correlated, which is why most vascular doctors do not routinely prescribe statins for patients who have plaque buildup in the carotid arteries. There is not sufficient evidence to show lowering cholesterol with a statin can positively effect your risk of a stroke and treating high blood pressure is correlated with more beneficial outcomes and a reduced risk of stroke; unfortunately, lowering cholesterol is not thought to help as much in this regard.

    So, I may suggest changing the title of your article to “SonoSite’s New Push: Ultrasound for an Up-Close Look at Stroke Risk” since it’s technically not correct to say a carotid ultrasound has any bearing on what’s happening in your coronary arteries. There are ultrasound images you can take to examine the coronary arteries with SonoSite’s machine, though it would be a stronger probe that could move through muscle and more tissue to provide a clear image.

    Great article, though. I thought it was an excellent read.