Predicting the unexpected: laying sudden cardiac deaths to rest

Sudden cardiac arrest kills more than 30,000 Canadians of all ages and all fitness levels every year.

In some of the most dramatic instances, seemingly healthy young athletes collapse suddenly on the playing field and die. Equally devastating are the cases that don’t make the headlines: the teenage daughter who goes to sleep and never wakes, or the mother who loses two babies to sudden infant death.

Up to 60 per cent of such cardiac arrest cases are due to arrhythmias—irregular heartbeats—passed down through families. But what if your child or loved one had this condition—and you didn’t know it?

It’s a terrifying scenario, and one that UBC’s Head of Cardiology, Dr. Andrew Krahn, hopes to eliminate through his research into the genetic causes of arrhythmias.

An internationally recognized cardiac researcher, Krahn knows that with testing and timely intervention, most of these deaths are preventable. He’s determined to develop an accurate test to detect and treat these hereditary conditions in people who appear otherwise healthy.

 

 

“Simply put, my goal is to stamp out sudden death,” says Krahn. “With accurate detection, preventative treatments like the use of beta-blockers or implantable defibrillators are extremely successful at controlling arrhythmias.”

Krahn’s research, in collaboration with his peers in the fields of medical genetics and pediatrics, is making remarkable advances towards this goal.

In late 2013, the province launched the BC Inherited Arrhythmia Program, a groundbreaking initiative operating under Cardiac Services BC, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. BCIAP, where Krahn is co-medical director, brings together specialists in cardiology, pediatrics and genetics to diagnose and treat cardiac arrhythmias. There are an estimated 7,000 British Columbians living with, or at risk for developing, arrhythmias.

There are clinics at St. Paul’s and BC Children’s hospitals in Vancouver and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, with outreach programs in Northern BC and clinics across the province that connect via videoconferencing. People concerned about their family history of inherited heart arrhythmia can be referred to BCIAP by their family doctor.

Krahn believes that with his team’s research and clinical work, and the leadership of institutions like UBC and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the “lightning strike” of arrhythmia may soon be a thing of the past—not just in BC, but also around the world.

 

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