Laura Dewar at home on her ranch in the Cariboo with dogs Vicki and Midget.
PhD student tackles unexplained deaths
By Diane Luckow
Laura Dewar has been investigating approximately 100 unnatural, unexpected, unexplained and unattended deaths each year for more than 20 years as a death investigator for B.C.’s Southern Cariboo region.
And while it’s sometimes difficult to tell a victim’s family about the cause of death, Dewar says it is far worse to tell them she can’t find a cause.
The most frustrating for her are what she calls sudden unexpected death in the young (SUDY) cases, from infants to adults under age 40. Cases in which “nothing shows up on autopsy, or ancillary tests such as biochemical analysis or toxicology,” she says.
Dewar, who has a master’s degree in human genetics, began searching for way to establish cause of death through genetic testing.
That’s when she discovered SFU kinesiology professor Glen Tibbits’ research into the genetics of cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal beating of the heart) in infants, which can cause sudden death.
Discussions with Tibbits led Dewar to scale back her death-investigator work four years ago to begin a PhD in molecular cardiac physiology in SFU’s biomedical physiology and kinesiology department. Her research aims to uncover the molecular mechanisms of sudden cardiac death underlying SUDY.
While her research is independent of Canada’s death investigation agencies, she hopes to establish a way for coroners and medical examiners across Canada to do genetic testing for disorders that can potentially cause SUDY.
Her thesis research includes examining genes for possible mutations associated with cardiac arrhythmia and developing SUDY guidelines for death investigators and medical examiners.
These practices would, for example, ensure that post-mortem tissue is retained from the autopsy for genetic testing, recommend that families be assessed for cardiac arrhythmia, and develop an integrated investigational approach among all involved parties including family members.
Dewar has already published a book chapter on sudden cardiac death and presented her findings at last fall’s Canadian Cardiovascular Society Congress. She expects to spend a further two years completing her PhD program.