A Broken Heart

By Jackie Powder

A 3-year-old with flu-like symptoms in the morning dies in her mother’s arms that evening.

A 32-year-old running a half-marathon collapses and dies at the finish line.

A high school athlete drops dead on a treadmill.

Myocarditis, often symptom-free, doles out death suddenly and silently. The disease is frequently caused by viral infections that reach the heart and trigger a fatal immune response, says immunologist DeLisa Fairweather, PhD. This acute form of the disease is a leading cause of sudden death among seemingly healthy young people. In its chronic form, myocarditis causes inflammation of the heart muscle and can progress to chronic heart failure several months or years later.

“When you hear about an athlete who went for a run or went swimming, then dropped dead, often autopsy results show it’s due to myocarditis,” says Fairweather, an assistant professor in Environmental Health Sciences. The absence of obvious symptoms frequently means that the disease remains undiagnosed and, in the acute state, physical exertion becomes dangerous.

Currently, a heart biopsy is the most reliable method to diagnose myocarditis but it is an invasive and risky procedure, Fairweather says. It’s one reason why her work to identify biomarkers for earlier detection is critical in preventing myocarditis deaths.

“In animal models we have found a marker that can detect inflammation using noninvasive imaging techniques and are beginning a small clinical trial at Mayo Clinic to test it,” says Fairweather. “We’re trying to get our data in animals published now, and with the results from the trial will apply for NIH grant money to perform a larger study in patients.”

A Myocarditis Foundation board member, Fairweather says families always want to know what they could have done to prevent a child’s death. “There are all the regrets that come with a sudden loss,” she says. “Someone is ripped away before they’ve had a chance to live life.”