Scientists in New York have developed a way of making blocked arteries show up in scans.
It works by delivering a molecule to cholesterol-filled plaques which can penetrate the cells exhibiting signs of clogging and cholesterol.
When viewed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) the cholesterol-filled plaques show up more brightly than the surrounding area.
The technique has been shown, in animal tests, to improve detection by 79 per cent.
Until now, the detection of cholesterol build-up in arteries has been hindered by no adequate means of viewing plaques.
The new technique, which was announced at the American Chemical Society meeting, allows doctors to locate plaques and measure their size before they rupture, often with serious consequences.
It is expected that the discovery will aid detection of clogged arteries and therefore make it easier to identify those at risk of heart attack or stroke.
The method could also be used to assess patients' response to therapy and medication.
Dr Zahi A Fayed, who was involved in the research, said the technique could become part of standard clinical practice in the next few years.