Molecular imaging of atherosclerosis: spotlight on Raman spectroscopy and surface-enhanced Raman scattering

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To accurately predict atherosclerotic plaque progression, a detailed phenotype of the lesion at the molecular level is required. Here, we assess the respective merits and limitations of molecular imaging tools. Clinical imaging includes contrast-enhanced ultrasound, an inexpensive and non-toxic technique but with poor sensitivity. CT benefits from high spatial resolution but poor sensitivity coupled with an increasing radiation burden that limits multiplexing. Despite high sensitivity, positron emission tomography and single-photon emission tomography have disadvantages when applied to multiplex molecular imaging due to poor spatial resolution, signal cross talk and increasing radiation dose. In contrast, MRI is non-toxic, displays good spatial resolution but poor sensitivity. Preclinical techniques include near-infrared fluorescence (NIRF), which provides good spatial resolution and sensitivity; however, multiplexing with NIRF is limited, due to photobleaching and spectral overlap. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy are label-free techniques that detect molecules based on the vibrations of chemical bonds. Both techniques offer fast acquisition times with Raman showing superior spatial resolution. Raman signals are inherently weak; however, leading to the development of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) that offers greatly increased sensitivity due to using metallic nanoparticles that can be functionalised with biomolecules targeted against plaque ligands while offering high multiplexing potential. This asset combined with high spatial resolution makes SERS an exciting prospect as a diagnostic tool. The ongoing refinements of SERS technologies such as deep tissue imaging and portable systems making SERS a realistic prospect for translation to the clinic.

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