What Everest Teaches About Disease

On Behalf of | May 29, 2012 | Uncategorized

A team of Mayo Clinic scientists recently accompanied climbers to Mount Everest to study the effects of high altitude. And researchers from the University of Colorado, Denver, are planning a high-altitude research trip to Bolivia with 24 study participants. For four weeks starting April 20, Mayo Clinic researchers were in Nepal taking physiological measurements of 10 climbers’ hearts and lungs, as well as conducting sleep studies and cognitive performance tests on them.
By studying the climbers, six of whom reached the summit, the researchers hope to gain insight into heart failure, lung disease and sleep apnea—all conditions related to a low-oxygen, or hypoxic, state. The longer people spend at extreme high altitude, the longer their bodies lack the needed amount of oxygen and the lower their energy—stresses similar to those caused by the diseases.
The proportion of oxygen in the air—21%—is constant whether at sea level or on the highest peak, but at lower altitudes there is more air pressure to force oxygen into tissue. At higher altitudes, where atmospheric pressure is lower, oxygen enters the body less readily, leading to the hypoxic state.
The research also might lead to new ways of controlling the body’s response to low oxygen in other contexts, such as one day helping limit growth of certain solid-tumor cancers, which need oxygen and blood vessels to grow, Dr. Roach says.
Altitude research already benefits patients with medical conditions and vice versa. Asthma inhalers like albuterol, which work by stimulating beta-receptor cells in the lungs, were first used to treat high-altitude climbers. Conversely, several heart-failure medicines are now in use to treat altitude sickness or help with acclimatization, researchers say.

Read more about this in the New York Times at New York Times online article

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