A new study published in the Cardiovascular Interventions Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) was able to identify heart attack-causing lipid core plaque (LCP) in live patients. It may prove to be a new insight into the prevention of heart attacks, which are referred to as "myocardial infarctions" in medical terms, and affect hundreds of thousands of Americans yearly.

Through the use of a TVC Imaging System, an intravascular system that integrates both near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) lipid core plaque detection and intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) imaging technology, the researchers were able to identify the structure — or "signature" — of lipid core plaques during heart attacks in live patients.

A statement released by Infrardx, Inc., a medical device company that developed the TVC Imaging System, said that the system had been used in over 3,000 patients before, but that this was the first time it was used in STEMI patients. STEMI refers to one of the most severe types of heart attacks, "ST segment elevation myocardial infarction," where the coronary artery is entirely blocked off by a blood clot, causing a large amount of the heart muscle to die.

"The study's novel in vivo findings of lipid core plaque at STEMI culprit sites correspond with multiple autopsy studies that have demonstrated that rupture of a large lipid core plaque is the most frequent cause of a fatal myocardial infarction," the Infraredx press release states. "Most importantly for predictive and preventive purposes, it is likely that the large lipid core plaques observed at STEMI culprit sites were present and detectable before plaque rupture and thrombus formation and the acute coronary event."

James Muller, M.D., chief medical officer of Infraredx, believes that the findings hold potential for preventing heart attacks in the future.

"Here we are in 2013, and there are still roughly one million myocardial infarctions that happen per year, just in the United States alone," Muller said in a video where he explains the study. "And of those one million infarctions, we currently cannot predict a single one of them before they happen."

Muller says that the study has shown that the lipid core plaque, which is most often the reason why heart attacks occur, could very well be present before the heart attack happens — meaning that identifying the plaque could predict an oncoming infarction and could potentially save many lives.