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In death, 5-year-old Teague Ryan became a lifesaver

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The pain still persists for Tom Ryan, especially in the gray of each February, when the anniversary of his son’s death arrives cold and hard.

Ohio State wrestling coach Tom Ryan
Tom Ryan

Ryan is busy as Ohio State’s wrestling coach, but there is always pause in his pace when he's reminded of Feb. 16, 2004 — the date his son Teague died unexpectedly and suddenly.

Teague was 5 years old, a magnetic bundle of joy, prone to donning his sister’s one-piece bathing suit because it looked like a wrestling singlet, same as those worn by the athletes his dad coached then at Hofstra University.

A physical had detected no symptoms of a heart disorder in Teague, and then, three weeks later he was running through the family home on Long Island, New York, when his mother scooped him up.

Her child had suffered a heart attack. An ambulance came.

Forty-five minutes later, doctors told Tom and Lynette their son was dead.

“It brought me to my knees,” Tom said.

 

Dr. Peter mohair
Peter Mohler, PhD

Two years later, Ryan became the coach at Ohio State, where in 2013, he crossed paths with Peter Mohler, PhD, director of the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The institute consists of more than 700 faculty, staff and trainees at Ohio State from 10 university colleges and 26 departments.

Mohler’s specific research is focused on the cause and treatment of two types of cardiac problems: abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and heart failure.

That’s where Teague comes in.

Teague was originally diagnosed in 2004 as having died from Long Q-T syndrome, a disorder of the heart’s electrical system, but additional tests failed to prove that. The Ryans were then told a virus might have weakened their son’s heart muscle, but that was only a probability, not a certainty.

The mystery remained for nine years — until Ryan met Mohler.

“Dr. Mohler opened his arms,” Ryan recalled, “and said, ‘Let’s figure this out. Let’s get your family an answer.’”

A place for solutions

Finding answers isn’t enough at the Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute.

“We want to be known as the place where we come up with solutions — that’s what we’re very proud of,” Mohler said. “When we find a genetic variant that has never been identified before, we want to understand if it might cause problems for not only that single individual, but others in the world where it might be creating susceptibility to disease.”

The answers come through the unified and determined work of staff, faculty and students from all branches of the university.

For example, Mohler’s lab, located in the Bob and Corrine Frick Center for Heart Failure and Arrhythmia, works on 15 to 20 cases at a time with another lab headed by Thomas Hund, PhD, a professor in biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering.

“It’s just part of the fabric of this place that people collaborate,” Hund said.

The research team’s goal for the individual patient and population at large is to design new treatments once they’ve found a genetic answer to the relationship between variants in a person’s DNA and the fatal forms of cardiac arrhythmia or heart failure.

“That’s the big thing that we are really pushing now,” said Mohler, vice dean of research for Ohio State’s College of Medicine.

“We want to take the findings in single patients and be able to provide them and others with information about what to look for so we’ll be able to detect a disease before it can happen.

“The key part is to be able to make sure we know that for that individual patient, what’s the answer? What is the treatment? Is it surgery? Is it a drug?”

Researchers at the Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute have discovered more than 20 gene variants related to cardiac arrhythmia and heart failure by studying past and current cases from around the world.

“We’re doing some really exciting things now in gene therapy in some of our disease areas that 10 years ago you would’ve thought this was science fiction,” Mohler said.

The discoveries at Ohio State have been provided to a worldwide database for other researchers and hospitals to identify and take preventive measures.

One of those 20-plus discovered gene variants belonged to Teague Ryan.

How Teague is saving lives

Picture of Teague Ryan, smiling
Teague Ryan

Mohler warned Ryan at the start that it would be a long shot to find an answer for his son’s death.

Odds didn’t matter.

Two years of research by Mohler’s team ended up with a discovery in 2015 that Teague had a gene variant that had previously not been associated with cardiac arrhythmia, abnormal heart rhythms that can sometimes cause death.

Essentially, Teague died because one variant out of 4 billion pieces of DNA in one cell made him more susceptible to cardiac arrhythmias.

“It brought calm and a sense of order to our lives knowing that Teague just had a trait that was passed down,” Ryan said.

The answer also served a broader purpose to his son’s short life.

“Every parent wants their child to impact the [lives] of others,” Ryan said, “and Teague is doing that through the research being done at Ohio State.”

After the discovery, Mohler’s team conducted three more years of follow-up research regarding Teague’s case to understand why this one variant in his DNA predisposed him.

Once evidence was incontrovertible, the Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute prepared a report for publication so that teams throughout the world can have access to the data for potentially their own patients.

“It’s been an uplifting journey with Dr. Mohler and his team,” Ryan said. “It’s been uplifting for my Lynette and I to have an answer — to have closure — and to know that Teague can make a difference because they found something that can save another human life.

“We have four children — three on Earth and one in heaven. It’s cool that the one in heaven is having an impact by potentially saving lives here. It’s amazing.”