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Mend a Broken Heart

 Research

Early this month former Newcastle United midfielder Cheick Tiote collapsed during a training session with Beijing Enterprises Group Football club and died at the age of 30. 

This tragedy was not the first case of sudden death amongst professional football players. Similar tragedies have happened to many others, including Cameroon national team player Marc-Vivien Foe and Nigeria national team player Samuel Okwaraji. There have also been some lucky cases. Bolton player Fabrice Muamba collapsed during a FA cup game against Tottenham Hotspur in 2012. He had a cardiac arrest lasting for 78 minutes, but miraculously survived, thanks to the quick thinking of a doctor in the crowd. However after recovery he decided to retire early at the age of 25. 

One of the major causes for sudden cardiac death in athletes is catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). The ECG graphs for CPVT patients look normal in the resting state, but a potentially deadly arrhythmia will happen when the patients do vigorous exercise or are under stress. Most CPVT patients carry genetic mutations in a calcium-release channel called ryanodine receptor (RyR), which is the largest ion channel identified so far. To understand the molecular mechanism of CPVT mutations, the research group led by Dr. Michael Yuchi from the School of pharmaceutical science and technology (SPST) at Tianjin University studies the structure of RyR at atomic resolution. Using a technique called x-ray crystallography, Yuchi’s group is able to observe the subtle structural change caused by CPVT mutations and elucidates their functional consequences. In a recent study published this year (Europace. 2017 doi: 10.1093/europace/euw389.), by collaborating with clinicians from 28 medical centers all over the world, they analyzed the sequencing data from hundreds of CPVT patients and created a useful model that can be used to accurately predict the severity of individual mutations. The goal of Yuchi’s group is not only to provide prediagnostic tools that prevent tragedies like Tiote’s tragedy from happening again, but also to develop novel drugs to treat CPVT patients so that one day young players like Muamba can play their favorite game again. 

With its rapid growth of the economy, China is investing billions of dollars in its domestic professional sports leagues. The Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) has attracted many big names in recent years, including Tevez, Ramires and Oscar. The growing demand has led to sports health care becoming a hot new research field. Research projects such as the one being conducted by Dr. Yuchi’s group will promote a flourishing of the sports sector as well as public fitness and health. 

A RyR structural model Yuchi created to predict the severity of CPVT. Mutations associated with cardiac arrest are highlighted in purple and mutations associated with mild phenotypes like syncope are shown in black. 

By: Michael Yuchi (Associate Professor of SPST, Tianjin University)

Editors: Qin Mian and Christopher Peter Clarke