UCL News


Taking medicine to extreme heights

15 March 2013

A dedicated team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists are taking more than 200 people to the Himalayas to study how our bodies respond to low levels of oxygen.

Xtreme Everest

Researchers from UCL's Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (CASE) will lead the team on a trek to three locations in the Himalayas: Everest Base Camp, Namche Bazaar and Kathmandu. Here, at altitudes over 1,400 metres, clinicians will conduct experiments on themselves and volunteers to see how their bodies cope with the low oxygen levels experienced at extreme altitude.

The results will help scientists to develop treatments that will benefit critically ill patients in intensive care. Although intensive care units save many lives, up to 40 per cent of patients admitted will not survive.

"Some people seem to manage better with low oxygen levels than others, and there is still limited understanding about why this is," says expedition leader, Dr Daniel Martin (UCL Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine), one of five UCL researchers involved in the Xtreme Everest expedition.

The Himalayas might be thousands of miles from UK hospital wards but the expedition is necessary because of the difficulties associated with studying patients in intensive care units, not least of which is the fact that they are so ill. Looking at how healthy volunteers respond at high altitudes will enable the medical investigators to better understand the ways in which different people cope with low oxygen levels.

Some people seem to manage better with low oxygen levels than others, and there is still limited understanding about why this is

Dr Dan Martin, UCL Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine

Volunteers in the study include identical twins, adults and children as young as eight. For the first time the researchers will also be conducting experiments with the local Sherpas.

"Sherpas are incredibly good at tolerating low levels of oxygen," says Dr Martin, "but very little is currently known about their physiology."

The research will build on the findings of a previous expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 2007.

"The most important processes we identified were microcirculation - the delivery of fresh blood to the smallest blood vessels - and the mitochondria, which are the 'power-houses' of our cells and make all the energy," continues Dr Martin. It is these processes that will be the focus of the research this Spring.

The first volunteers arrive on Saturday 16 March and will be put on exercise bikes before giving blood, saliva, hair and urine samples. They will undergo numerous tests designed to monitor their ability to adjust to low levels of oxygen.

Researchers will be record blood flow, nitric oxide levels, lung function and levels of oxygen in the volunteers' muscles, all of which will provide invaluable information that will help to save the lives of critically ill patients.

The expedition is supported in part by UCLH, the Royal Free Charity and London Clinical Hospitals.


Image caption: The Xtreme Everest team approaching the summit of Everest during the last expedition. Credit: Caudwell Xtreme Everest

Media contact: David Weston