Atop Everest for health research

UBC expedition seeks high altitude answers to chronic diseases

Talk about a steep learning curve.

A pioneering research project designed to investigate the effects of chronic oxygen deprivation and distribution of blood flow at high altitudes through the heart, lungs and brain will put a UBC research expedition on top of the world at Everest Base Camp next month.

The School of Health and Exercise Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan campus is sending a 25-member team of international scientists on a six-week research expedition in April to Everest’s Pyramid laboratory. The fully equipped scientific facility—at 5,050 metres—is three miles above sea level and more than half-way up the world’s tallest mountain, which tops out at 8,848 metres. Compare that to Vancouver at sea level, or Kelowna’s elevation of 344 metres.

Principal investigator Philip Ainslie, Canada Research Chair in Cerebrovascular Function in Health and Disease and associate professor in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences, leads the expedition.

“Research at high altitude provides an excellent means to examine physiological adaptation to chronic reductions in the pressure of oxygen,” says Ainslie. “Results of the studies have the potential to substantially improve our understanding of biological adaption to chronic hypoxia.”

Hypoxia—which can severely decrease oxygen delivery to the brain—and reduced blood flow to vital organs are characteristic of many chronic conditions, including heart attack, stroke and respiratory failure. Researchers hope to adapt experiment results for further clinical studies with the goal of devising new methods of prevention and treatment.

The 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 international contingent includes members from UBC’s Okanagan and Vancouver campuses, Duke University, University of Oregon, University of Sydney, Mount Royal University (Calgary), University of Cardiff, Okanagan College, 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.

Researchers will be their own test subjects as healthy human volunteers, undergoing procedures in Kelowna to collect extensive baseline data for their mountain experiments, which will be repeated at altitude on Everest.

Expedition members will undergo extensive acclimatization for six weeks prior to arriving at the Everest lab, where conditions are harsh due to the thin atmosphere, austere surroundings, unpredictable weather and mountain sickness that affects many newcomers to high-altitude areas.

The scientific team assembled in Kelowna for three weeks in late February for lab and equipment training and physical screening testing. They leave for Vancouver and the Himalayas in April for the six-week expedition.

The Ev-K2-CNR Pyramid Laboratory at Everest base camp in 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 of them have already volunteered for earlier experiments through collaborations with local physicians and scientists.

“People who live their lives at high altitude seem more resistant and less vulnerable to the respiratory and cardiovascular problems that we experience living at sea level,” says Ainslie. “We want to explore this phenomenon further to gain insight into those differences.”

Ainslie—an accomplished mountaineer who has been to Everest seven times—says the conditions in the Himalayas offer the best and most cost-effective opportunity to conduct research.

“The Himalayas present the best opportunity for success for UBC’s expedition without a doubt,” says Ainslie.

Preparations for the expedition have been under way for two years. Part of the funds to cover the estimated $50,000 expenses of seven participating students and post-doctoral fellows will be raised by selling a limited-edition expedition patch through UBC’s Okanagan campus bookstore.  Minimum donation: $10.

Organizers also hope to raise funds for the Himalaya Trust, the foundation set up by Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who first summited Everest, in order to aid the region’s peoples build schools, health-care and other facilities.

Contact the team at:

Related topics:

UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 3 | Feb. 29, 2012

A view of the majestic Himalayas. Photograph by Everest Research Team.

A view of the majestic Himalayas. Photograph by Everest Research Team.

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“People who live their lives at high altitude seem more resistant and less vulnerable to the respiratory and cardiovascular problems.”

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