SFU research finds sudden cardiac death may be triggered by change in body temperature

WATCH: It is a mystifying condition that causes apparently healthy people, mostly top-level athletes, to suddenly collapse and die. Sudden cardiac death also strikes infants, leaving behind devastated parents.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University are trying to unlock the mysteries of a medical phenomenon that often strikes its victims in their prime.

Sudden Cardiac Death occurs when the heart, instead of beating normally, starts to quiver. It moves, but isn’t actually pumping the blood. When it happens – it happens fast.

“What we are looking for is essentially the perfect storm of events that result in sudden cardiac death,” said Prof. Peter Ruben of SFU’s Dept. of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology.

Sudden cardiac death has struck competitive athletes in the heat of battle. In 2004, for example, Hungarian soccer player Miklos Feher died during a match in Portugal.

Story continues below advertisement

There are several heart diseases that can cause this kind of sudden cardiac attack. What they all have in common is mutations in proteins that signal heart muscles to beat.

SFU is studying one of those proteins.

“What we found is a change in this particular protein that causes an arrhythmia that makes this protein more sensitive to heat,” said Ruben.

The fact that the protein that can cause irregular heart rhythms when it heats up may explain why athletes are most often the victims.

“During exercise body core temperature does rise significantly, especially in athletes because they’re working really hard,” said SFU PhD student Mena Abdelsayed.

Another reason athletes who have the mutated protein are more at risk has to do with the fact that strenuous exercise causes the blood to become more acidic.

“Protein doesn’t like that at all,” said SFU PhD student Colin Peters. “It alters the protein we are studying in the same way that the mutation does, so it increases the effects that we’ve seen just with mutation itself. It makes it more dangerous.”

-with files from Linda Aylesworth