Preventing hereditary cardiac arrest

Inherited heart diseases may present with no forewarning. A young person with no previous signs of disease can suddenly suffer a cardiac arrest while out on a run or playing football. Kristina Haugaa’s research aims to prevent such events.

Kristina Haugaa
Kristina Haugaa is a professor at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge Photo: Ulf Sirborn

What are you researching? 

“I’m a cardiologist and am involved both as a researcher and clinician in genetic heart diseases that can give rise to cardiac arrest in young people, especially when doing sports. In health care, we try to identify such people before anything happens to them, monitor them with regular check-ups and help them with advice and certain treatments. My research is about how we can be better at all this.” 

What does that entail? 

“Much of my research is about the risk of exercise when you have these diseases in both the immediate and long term. Cases where well-trained young people suddenly suffer a fatal cardiac arrest while running a marathon or playing a ball sport was long considered a paradox, but my group at Oslo University Hospital was one of the first to show that it’s not purely a matter of bad luck: a lot of exercise exacerbates some of these inherited heart diseases, but not all. On the other hand, exercise has important benefits – so there’s a lot to investigate here. We’re also researching how the diseases are affected by other sorts of efforts, for example pregnancy, something that also varies markedly for different diagnoses. 

Patients at a high risk of cardiac arrest can have an internal defibrillator implanted in them, a bit like a pacemaker, with the capability to give lifesaving therapy in case of an event. An important arm of my research concerns predicting sudden cardiac arrest risk so that we can judge when such an intervention should be made. It’s not a harmless intervention and mustn’t be done too early – but at the same time tragedy can strike if you wait too long.” 

What does your future hold? 

“I’ll continue along my current research path but my relocation here will also broaden my research scope. KI has so much to offer and is full of possibilities. What I hope, of course, is that our research will help to prevent sudden cardiac death in the young – by means of improved diagnostics and better risk prediction and eventually, perhaps, by treating the disease itself.” 

Text: Anders Nilsson, in translation from Swedish
First published in the booklet ‘From Cell to Society 2022’

About Kristina Haugaa  

Professor of Cardiology, specialising in Arrhythmology at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge 

Kristina Haugaa was born in Gothenburg in 1971 and graduated with a degree in medicine in 1996 from Christian Albrechts Universität, Germany. She became a specialist in internal medicine in 2005 and in cardiology in 2008. Haugaa obtained her PhD from the University of Oslo, Norway, in 2010, and went on to do her postdoc research at the Mayo Clinic and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, USA, from 2012 to 2013. Since 2003 she has been clinically active at Rikshospitalet in Oslo, where she was made director of the cardiology outpatient clinic in 2011 and was funded by the Norwegian research council with the research center ProCardio Center for Innovation in 2019. On her recruitment to KI, she will become consultant at Karolinska University Hospital. 

Kristina Haugaa was appointed Professor of Cardiology, specialising in Arrhythmology at Karolinska Institutet on 11 October 2021.