This article examines sudden unexplained deaths (SUD) in apparently healthy individuals for which the causes of deaths remained undetermined after comprehensive forensic investigations and autopsy.
Sudden unexplained deaths (SUD) in apparently healthy individuals, for which the causes of deaths remained undetermined after comprehensive forensic investigations and autopsy, present vexing challenges to medical examiners and coroners. Cardiac channelopathies, a group of inheritable diseases that primarily affect heart rhythm by altering the cardiac conduction system, have been known as one of the likely causes of SUD. Adhering to the recommendations of including molecular diagnostics of cardiac channelopathies in SUD investigation, the Molecular Genetics Laboratory of the New York City (NYC) Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has been routinely testing for six major channelopathy genes (KCNQ1, KCNH2, SCN5A, KCNE1, KCNE2, and RyR2) since 2008. Presented here are the results of cardiac channelopathy testing in 274 well-characterized autopsy negative SUD cases, all with thorough medicolegal death investigation including complete autopsy by NYC OCME between 2008 and 2012. The cohort consisted of 141 infants (92.9% younger than six-month old) and 133 non-infants (78.2% were between 19 and 58 years old). Among the ethnically diverse cohort, African American infants had the highest risks of SUD, and African American non-infants died at significantly younger age (23.7 years old, mean age-at-death) than those of other ethnicities (30.3 years old, mean age-at-death). A total of 22 previously classified cardiac channelopathy-associated variants and 24 novel putative channelopathy-associated variants were detected among the infants (13.5%) and non-infants (19.5%). Most channelopathy-associated variants involved the SCN5A gene (68.4% in infants, 50% in non-infants). The authors believe this is the first study assessing the role of cardiac channelopathy genes in a large and demographically diverse SUD population drawn from a single urban medical examiner's office in the United States. The authors’ study supports that molecular testing for cardiac channelopathy is a valuable tool in SUD investigations and provides helpful information to medical examiners/coroners seeking cause of death in SUD as well as potentially life-saving information to surviving family members. (Published Abstract Provided)
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