As the American military rushes to confront adversaries in some of the world's highest mountain ranges, the Department of Defense is giving $4 million to the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine to develop revolutionary ways to combat high altitude sickness in soldiers, sailors and marines.
The Altitude Research Center, the only civilian institution focused on studying the effects of altitude on human physiology, received two grants as part of a Pentagon's increased emphasis on using biology to create better fighting men and women. Specifically, the government wants to find ways to swiftly overcome Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS which often strikes those serving in Afghanistan.
One grant for $2.5 million will allow scientists to create an easy-to-use test kit to determine who is likely to get altitude sickness before they are deployed. A second $1.5 million grant will fund research seeking to find the basic molecular processes behind acclimatization with the hope of discovering new ways to protect armed forces personnel from high altitude illness. At the same time, the study could have major implications for medical research, specifically the role altitude plays in cancer, heart and lung disease.
"We believe the immediate impact of these studies will be to save lives and improve the performance of those fighting at high altitude," said Robert Roach, PhD, director of the Altitude Research Center. "But in the long term, we hope it will lead to new discoveries that can benefit those who suffer from low oxygen states, whether they live and work at high altitude or have heart, lung or other diseases at any altitude."
AMS can cause dizziness, excessive thirst, fatigue, nausea, sleeplessness and swelling of the brain.
"Right now we have no reliable way to predict who will get AMS and who will remain healthy at high altitude," Roach said. "This is a major concern for the military because soldiers need to be ready to perform immediately upon arrival at high altitudes."
Roach has interviewed numerous Special Forces operators who went from sea level to 10,000 feet in a matter of days. Many had never been at altitude and struggled to carry heavy packs over mountains more than 10,000 feet high.
Roach's research team has developed a blood test that nearly always identifies those who will get AMS. They did it by placing test subjects for 10 hours in a chamber that simulated altitudes of 16,000 feet. Now they hope to create an AMS test kit that can be easily packaged and sold to the military and eventually to the general public.
"If we can identify soldiers likely to get AMS before they go to high altitude, we can intervene with medications that prevent or reduce symptoms like dexamethasone and acetazolamide," Roach said.