July 31, 2009

Killen lands award for heart genetics research

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Stacy Killen, M.D.

Killen lands award for heart genetics research

Stacy Killen, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology, received the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes (SADS) Foundation Young Investigator Award in Cardiac Channelopathies.

The award aims “to encourage the next generation of researchers in SADS conditions,” said Michael Ackerman, M.D., Ph.D., SADS Foundation Board Chair and Mayo Clinic investigator. It recognizes an outstanding, original academic work by a junior investigator in the field of cardiac channelopathies – diseases caused by disturbed function of heart protein “channels” that control the flow of electricity through the heart.

The award was presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric and Congenital Electrophysiology Society.

Killen was honored for her studies of a heart sodium channel gene variant that is common in African-Americans and increases the risk of sudden cardiac death. Killen and her mentor Alfred George, M.D., chief of the Division of Genetic Medicine, proposed that people with one normal copy of the channel gene and one variant copy (heterozygotes), may have unequal expression of the two gene copies (allelic expression imbalance). Such an imbalance – with more of the variant sodium channel – might increase the risk of sudden death.

The researchers examined expression from normal and variant gene copies in heart tissue samples from African-American infants who died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or other causes. They found unequal expression of the two gene copies in 60 percent of the samples; the imbalance alone was not a marker for SIDS risk.

“I feel extremely honored to receive this award and attribute the success of this work to Dr. George’s excellent mentorship and to the diligent work of our research team,” Killen said.

Killen’s area of clinical expertise is cardiac imaging, including transthoracic, transesophageal and fetal echocardiography.

She has a special interest in fetal arrhythmias and plans to work with members of the Vanderbilt Department of Physics to develop a program in fetal magnetocardiography, a non-invasive tool for diagnosing fetal arrhythmias and assessing fetal well-being.

Killen earned her M.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern, where she also completed her internship and residency, and served as chief resident, in Pediatrics. She came to Vanderbilt in 2005 for fellowship training in Pediatric Cardiology and Advanced Imaging, and she earned a Master of Science in Clinical Investigation from Vanderbilt in 2008. She joined the faculty this spring.