Rhythm abnormality of unknown origin predicts sudden death risk

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Researchers conducting a large, ongoing study to improve detection and prevention of sudden cardiac death were surprised to discover that a specific heart rhythm abnormality – idiopathic QT interval prolongation – increased risk fivefold among patients with coronary artery disease.

“More than 80% of all cases of sudden cardiac death occur in people who have significant coronary artery disease, but we currently do not have a medical test that consistently identifies patients at risk,” said Dr Sumeet S Chugh, Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, Los Angeles, USA. Chugh is first author of article “Determinants of Prolonged QT Interval and Their Contribution to Sudden Death Risk in Coronary Artery Disease: The Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study,” published in Circulation on 26 January 2009. The research was conducted with colleagues in the Emergency Medicine and Pathology Departments at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, as part of the ongoing Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study.


“Measurement of the left ventricular ejection fraction is an established risk stratification tool, but is only helpful in a subgroup of overall sudden death victims,” said Chugh. Abnormal QT prolongation has significant potential for evaluating risk and developing prevention strategies, he added, but there are many factors – some known and some not known – that contribute to QT prolongation. “Diabetes and the use of certain medications were significant predictors of QT interval prolongation and sudden cardiac death risk in our study. However, the most interesting and somewhat unexpected finding was that abnormally prolonged QT interval of unknown etiology – independent of diabetes, medications and other factors – was an even more powerful predictor of sudden cardiac death, with a fivefold increase in odds,” affirmed Chugh.


The researchers noted that several gene variations have been linked to prolonged QT intervals, and the discovery of new genetic associations are likely to improve risk-assessment and intervention strategies. “The continued identification of gene variants that determine QT interval duration has become an important scientific priority in the field,” Chugh said.


In 2002, Chugh launched the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study, an ambitious population study involving 16 hospitals serving a community of about 1 million residents of the metropolitan area of Portland, Oregon, USA. This and related research projects are continuing to shed light on the incidence, demographics, genetic defects, risk factors, triggers and prevention techniques related to sudden cardiac arrest, which causes nearly instantaneous death in 90% of cases.


The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and a Hopkins-Reynolds Clinical Cardiovascular Center grant.

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