percent of systems have in-house toxicology capabilities.44 The cost for complete toxicology utilizing private sector laboratories for cases is high, resulting in insufficient toxicology screening and minimal testing on cases even when they are clearly indicated.

Molecular diagnosis conducted on blood and tissue samples is routine in hospital laboratories to diagnose disease. Investigations of unexplained sudden deaths, especially in young people and infants, would benefit from greater access to molecular diagnostics. Molecular diagnostic procedures are available, but most ME/C offices cannot afford to conduct these procedures and do not have the medical expertise to request them or the skills to interpret them. For example, testing for inborn errors of metabolism should be a part of any examination of the unexpected death of an infant or toddler, and testing for long QT syndrome is important in determining the cause of cardiac death in young people or in those whose family pedigree discloses other sudden unexpected deaths. Molecular testing is available for the etiology of multiple causes of sudden cardiac death, including abnormalities in ion channels in cell membranes or channelopathies, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, long QT syndrome, Marfan syndrome, right ventricular cardiomyopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.45

Some testing can be carried out on a dried blood sample long after death has occurred.46 Some molecular diseases are heritable, and it could be argued that the ME/C has a duty to identify these diseases and alert families about their presence. Many medical examiner offices archive a card with a dried blood sample on decedents, primarily to document personal identification, should the need arise, but also for future study. In the future, kin may request the archived blood cards, as the molecular diagnosis of disease improves and families seek to identify their risk. Thus, ME/Cs need education and training in and access to the specialized laboratory testing available to establish the molecular basis of disease and of sudden unexpected natural death.




S.E. Lehnart, M.J. Ackerman, D.W. Benson, R. Brugada, C.E. Clancy, J.K. Donahue, A.L. George, A.O. Grant, S.C. Groft, C.T. January, D.A. Lathrop, W.J. Lederer, J.C. Makielski, P.J. Mohler, A. Moss, J.M. Nerbonne, Y.M. Olson, D.A. Przywara, J.A. Towbin, L.H. Wang, A.R. Marks. Inherited arrhythmias: a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Office of Rare Diseases workshop consensus report about the diagnosis, phenotyping, molecular mechanisms, and therapeutic approaches for primary cardiomyopathies of gene mutations affecting ion channel function. Circulation 13;116(20):2325-2345.


Personal communication between M.J. Ackerman and Marcella Fierro. June 16, 2008.

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