West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center Participating in National Effort to Learn More About Sudden Death in the Young

The West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center (WTRFC), which is managed by the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), is one of four Tennessee locations participating in the new Sudden Death in the Young (SDY) Case Registry, a national data collection project to learn more about the reasons for sudden and unexplained deaths of those under the age of 20. The Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have funded the project in a total of 10 states or regions. The Tennessee Department of Health will oversee data collection at the four centers in the state.

After consent is obtained, data from deaths that meet specific criteria will be collected using nationwide standards of practice. This will include information from death certificates, medical records, death scene and pathology reports, as well as DNA samples that will be stored in a national biorepository. All information will be entered into a database to provide a nationwide registry of information that can be analyzed.

“The hope is we will learn something about why these children are dying,” said WTRFC’s Karen Chancellor, MD, chief medical examiner for Shelby County. Dr. Chancellor, a neuropathologist and forensic pathologist, served on the task force that wrote the autopsy protocol for the registry. Dr. Chancellor is also a professor of Pathology at UTHSC.

A similar project, the CDC’s Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Case Registry, started in 2009, provided information that supported sleep recommendations for infants. “We learned that a lot of those deaths were asphyxiation deaths,” said Dr. Chancellor. “We’re hoping for something just as substantial to come from this study, to find out something in these deaths that is preventable.”

It is estimated that more than 260 young people die each year in Tennessee without a known cause. Conditions such as heart disease and epilepsy may contribute to these numbers.

Besides the WTRFC, Tennessee data collection will be done at the Hamilton County Forensic Center, Forensic Medical Management Services in Davidson County, and the William L. Jenkins Forensic Center in Johnson City. Four-year grants to fund the effort were awarded in September. Training was done in December. Case reviews and data collection began nationwide in January.