The feasibility of localizing human atherosclerotic plaques by gamma scintillation camera external imaging with technetium-99m-labeled low density lipoproteins (99mTc-LDL) was tested in 17 patients who had atherosclerosis. Imaging demonstrated focal accumulation of radiolabel consistent with 99mTc-LDL sequestration by plaques in the carotid, iliac, or femoral vessels of four patients 8 to 21 hours after intravenous injection of the radiopharmaceutical. Focal accumulation of 99mTc-LDL also appeared in the location of coronary lesions in four patients, but this accumulation could not be distinguished with certainty from residual blood pool radioactivity. When carotid endarterectomy specimens from six patients who received 99mTc-LDL 1 day before endarterectomy were examined, the specimens had focal accumulations of radiolabel, with two to four times greater radioactivity in some regions of each specimen than in others; this occurred whether or not the lesions were detected on the gamma camera images. Lesion composition may have determined whether accumulation was quantitatively sufficient to produce an external image. Histologically, the imaged carotid specimen had abundant foam cells and macrophages and poorly organized intramural blood consistent with a plaque hemorrhage; in contrast, nonimaged endarterectomy specimens were mature, fibrocalcific plaques. We conclude that: 1) 99mTc-LDL did accumulate in human atherosclerotic plaques; 2) in some patients, the accumulation of 99mTc-LDL was sufficient for detection by gamma camera imaging; 3) the amount of LDL that accumulated appeared to depend on lesion composition; and 4) the design of new radiopharmaceuticals with reduced residual blood pool activity relative to plaque accumulation should lead to improved external imaging of atherosclerosis.