Minn. Researchers Look to Genetic Code for Answers Behind Sudden Cardiac Death

October 12, 2017 11:00 PM

Chris Fischer was just about to start his freshman year of high school when he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest that led to his death.

The 14-year-old Austin athlete collapsed on his high school football field during practice in late August. He died in the hospital on Sept. 2.


The coroner's report says it was due to probable heritable arrhythmia syndrome, a genetic disorder.

RELATED: Austin Student Athlete Dies 10 Days after Collapse at Practice

Sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes is something Dr. Jay Sengupta with the Minneapolis Heart Institute says researchers are learning more about everyday.

That's thanks in part to genetic testing and, even more so, to the families who sign on to allow it.

"Whenever we have a tragic event in the community where someone passes away tragically at a young age for unclear reasons, oftentimes their family is referred to a center like ours for further evaluation, to essentially try to identify what the cause was," Sengupta said.

Statistics show sudden cardiac death happens to one in every 40,000 to 50,000 young athletes.

In 2014, it was Patrick Schoonover, who halted the world of hockey after suffering a sudden cardiac death minutes after he scored a goal in a Brainerd hockey tournament.

He was only 14-years-old as well.

RELATED: Advisory Committee Recommends SMA be Added to Newborn Screening Panel

"There are many syndromes and conditions that we can't necessarily see if we were to look at the heart through an ultrasound or an MRI," said Sengupta.

That's where genetic testing comes can lend a hand.

Sengupta says, with the family's approval, medical examiners will save a blood sample and send it to the Minneapolis Heart Institute for further research on the genetic code behind these underlying abnormalities.

"It's a puzzle and we're looking for clues," he said.

Those clues can help families identify if the the gene lies in any siblings, parents or grandparents, and unlock more needed answers to a rare tragedy that still happens far too often.

The Department of Health says genetic make-up related to sudden cardiac death is too complex to screen in newborns.

However, Sengupta says genetic testing advances and what they know about sudden cardiac death today is ahead of where they were at the Minneapolis Heart Institute just five years ago.

The Play for Patrick Foundation will host it's next youth athlete heart screening on Oct. 28. Volunteer doctors give heart screenings to kids between the ages of 14 to 18 for free.



Katherine Johnson

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