CU researchers aim to cure altitude sickness
The Denver Post
Martin Kohn was on his way up.
At 6:30 a.m., he entered the altitude chamber in the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center. Within 10 minutes, researchers changed the pressure inside the chamber to take him from Denver’s mile-high altitude to a simulated elevation of 16,000 feet.
At that altitude, the 19-year-old test subject suffered a headache, nausea and muscle fatigue, all symptoms of “acute mountain sickness,” said center director Dr. Ben Honigman.
But Kohn endured the pain for a good cause: His experience in the chamber is helping Honigman develop drugs that lessen the time it takes for people to adjust to high altitudes, including soldiers battling at the extreme elevations of Afghanistan.
Honigman has applied to the Army’s research wing – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – for $20 million in grants to further the research.
He declined to elaborate on how the drugs work because of the competitive nature of his research.
In the chamber, the low atmospheric pressure at simulated high elevations made it harder for Kohn’s body to take in oxygen, which caused his altitude sickness symptoms.
Though he felt weak, he hopped on an exercise bike and rode for the next two hours, stopping twice for 15-minute breaks. The exercise is meant to exaggerate the effects of the altitude, and it worked. After the riding session and a series of cognitive tests and breathing exercises, the fit college student could not hold his head up.
By 11:30 a.m., he was still inside the chamber, leaning forward in his seat, resting his head between his knees for 10 minutes at a time.
“I got really dizzy,” he said. “Then I took a nice long nap.”
Although this procedure might sound like a strange form of torture, it serves an important purpose.
Honigman and his team of 14 researchers use subjects such as Kohn to test the effectiveness of new drugs that they hope will provide a cure for altitude sickness.
“We interfere with the chemical adaptation process to make your body think you’re at sea level,” Honigman said. “We can take the window of adjustment down to three or four days, instead of the 120 days it would normally take to fully adapt to a higher elevation.”
If he’s right, Honigman’s cure could help mountain climbers, tourists visiting Colorado and those unlucky 8 percent to 9 percent of high-altitude residents who still get sick when they take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
But Honigman hopes to take his work a step further.
If his lab wins the Army’s research grant, he will use that money to help U.S. troops better handle the physical stresses of the elevation in Afghanistan, where such combat areas as Kabul – 5,900 feet above sea level – and Hindu Kush – a mountain range that reaches up to 24,000 feet – are high enough to make 25 percent of sea-level dwellers sick.
“We can do something so soldiers will function just as well at 10,000 feet in Afghanistan as if they were going to Louisiana,” Honigman said.
Honigman expects to find out in the next two months whether his proposals will be approved.
In October, the Army’s research wing put out a request for strategies to speed altitude adjustment, and Honigman says there are only a few other facilities that could develop a solution, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.
If the CU altitude team’s grants are approved, it will have a year to prove the drugs work. The medicine would go through an FDA clinical trial before being given to soldiers.
According to Honigman, the Army is in a hurry to find an answer because altitude sickness in Afghanistan can have even more dangerous effects than headaches and nausea.
“In 1 to 2 percent of people, there can be catastrophic possibilities at high altitude,” he said. “Early on in their campaign in Afghanistan, in 2001, a helicopter crashed. The early stories were saying it was from altitude sickness.”
Beyond helping soldiers, researchers at the 6-year-old altitude center also hope to find out more about what causes altitude sickness in the first place.
“Using MRIs we can see that certain areas of the brain swell at high altitude,” said Andy Subudhi, a researcher at the center.
Honigman and his team have found evidence that some people are genetically predisposed to altitude sickness. They have also done population studies that suggest people who reside at altitudes higher than 7,000 feet live longer. They hope to examine the effects of low oxygen levels on heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis, which could point toward possible treatments, Honigman said.
All of these positive outcomes should be enough to make Kohn’s suffering worth it. But if not, the altitude center also will pay him $350 for two sessions inside the chamber, which last six to 10 hours.
“I was curious to see what the effects would be like, but the money didn’t hurt either,” Kohn said. “It wasn’t that bad. I’d definitely do it again.”
Claire Trageser: 303-954-1638 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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