Okanagan scientists lead trek to investigate high-altitude maladies
Canada’s international scientific expedition to Mount Everest is preparing to depart for Nepal on Sunday April 22. Everest 2012, a six-week, six-country research investigation into the effects of heart and brain blood flow and oxygen deprivation at high altitudes, will settle into the Pyramid Laboratory near Everest base camp for a six-week stay through the end of May.
The acclimatization process takes two weeks including the final leg of the journey, an eight-day walk to the remote lab, 5,050 metres, or five kilometres above sea level. The 25-member expedition will be weighed down by about a tonne of gear and equipment, though the burden will be eased by use of yaks, which will carry some of the load.
The researchers’ progress during the Everest stay can be followed online, as team member and Okanagan College human kinetics professor Greg DuManoir blogs live from the lab. Follow the Everest expedition at: http://amountainofdata.blogspot.ca
Expedition leader Philip Ainslie, Canada Research Chair in Cerebrovascular Function in Health and Disease and associate professor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, says the scientific and medical experiments are designed to mimic the symptoms and outcomes that occur in heart and stroke victims and those suffering from sleep apnea.
“This is an opportunity to take healthy people and expose them to low levels of oxygen to see how their heart, lungs and brain adapt or maladapt to that exposure,” says Ainslie. Hypoxia can severely decrease oxygen delivery to the brain. Reduced blood flow to the vital organs is characteristic of many chronic conditions.
The comprehensive Everest research study, titled Integrative physiological adaptation to high-altitude: a scientific expedition to explore mechanisms of human adaptation, encompasses eight separate experiments ranging from cerebrovascular, cardiopulmonary, and neurocognitive health to measuring the effects of acute mountain sickness and sleep apnea.
“The research we conduct and the results we achieve have the potential to provide new insights into illness prevention and better human health,” says Ainslie.
The pioneering expedition is expected to achieve a number of firsts in terms of scientific investigation and discovery.
“Low levels of oxygen occur in many pathologies,” says Ainslie. “Lung disease and heart failure occurs when we grow older. So it forms a way to understand how low levels of oxygen affect the body at an early stage.”
Expedition members will themselves be the test subjects for the experiments. Many of these were initially conducted as baseline studies at UBC’s Kelowna Health and Exercise Sciences lab during March and April. Team members travelled from Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, U.K. and U.S. to take part in the procedures.
Some experiments, like one measuring pulmonary arterial hypertension, involves invasive minor surgery to place arteriovenous shunts in wrist and neck arteries to measure acute hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) following ascent to high altitude.
A physician and bioengineer from Duke University, North Carolina, were in Kelowna recently to conduct the baseline research and they are part of the Everest 2012 team and will supervise the experiment at Everest.
“This was the first time that these procedures have ever been done in Canada,” says Ainslie.
The international contingent includes members from UBC’s Okanagan and Vancouver campuses, Okanagan College, Duke University, University of Oregon, University of Sydney, Mount Royal University (Calgary), University of Cardiff, University of Otago (New Zealand) and University of the Netherlands.
Members of the team include researchers, sleep technicians, physicians, a bioengineer, and a hardware/software specialist.
Lauren Ray of Nelson, B.C., a third-year Health and Exercise Sciences student at UBC’s Okanagan campus, is excited to be part of the Everest excursion.
“I want to go on this expedition because I strive for success and to achieve at the highest level. Mount Everest is the best of challenges,” says Ray. “The physiology is ground-breaking work. I am stoked to be a part of it and I want to be immersed in that environment.”
The Ev-K2-CNR Pyramid Laboratory at Everest base camp in the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is one of the only facilities in the world where all eight experiments can be conducted on members of the expedition, including invasive procedures and the study of sleep apnea, a common occurrence at high altitudes.
The expedition also plans to test a number of permanent high-altitude residents of mountainous Nepal, recruited from the Periche region, which is at 4,200 metres. Some have already volunteered for earlier experiments through collaborations with local physicians and scientists.
“We will compare results with some high-altitude residents who are born and bred at high altitudes over many generations,” says Ainslie. “So we will see how people can adapt over long and short terms.”
Ainslie – an accomplished mountaineer who has been to Everest several times – says the conditions in the Himalayas offer the best and most cost-effective opportunity to conduct research.
“It is quite hard to do these experiments. It takes three or four years minimum to organize and get use of lab space up there,” says Ainslie. “There are only one or two labs at that elevation in the world. So we have use of this lab and that will maximize our productivity there.”
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