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13.12.2018 | Review | Ausgabe 3/2019

Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology 3/2019

Functional significance of channelopathy gene variants in unexplained death

Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology > Ausgabe 3/2019
Ivan Gando, Hua-Qian Yang, William A. Coetzee


Determining the cause of unexplained death in all age groups, including infants, is a priority in forensic medicine. The triple risk model proposed for sudden infant death syndrome involves the intersection of three risks: (1) a critical developmental period in homeostatic control (2), exogenous stressors, and (3) a vulnerable infant. Even though sex and age factor into some forms of inherited arrhythmogenic deaths in young individuals and adults, more appropriate a dual-risk disease model for adults involves exogenous stressors and a vulnerable individual. The vulnerability aspect clearly has a genetic component as underscored by a number of recent large-scale and high-throughput genetic testing studies performed in attempt to define the causes of sudden unexplained death. These studies often focus on ‘cardiac’ and channelopathy genes. Genetic testing often identify lists of rare or ultra-rare nonsynonymous variants, classified according to the ACMG guidelines as ‘pathogenic’ or ‘likely pathogenic’, which may form the basis of diagnostic decisions and/or family counseling. However, computer algorithms used to categorize gene variants are not completely accurate and these variants are often not functionally tested to determine their pathogenicity. Due to conflicting computational predictions, a large number of variants are labeled as ‘variants of uncertain significance’ or VUS. Functional testing of these VUS can greatly assist to reclassify these VUS as ‘likely benign’ or ‘likely pathogenic’. However, functional testing has its limits and by itself cannot be used to determine cause of death. Going forward, computer algorithms must be improved to take account of variants across multiple genes and efforts must be expanded to obtain clinical, familial and segregation data. Forensic genetic testing needs to be held to the same rigorous standards as defined by the NIH Clinical Genome Resource Consortium, where functional evaluation of a channelopathy variant is only one (but important) aspect of the overall picture.

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