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.
For years, the Pentagon focused on fighting in hot, desert climates, especially in the wake of the first Gulf War. Now as it battles the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and looks to future challenges in mountainous regions of the world, it is increasingly interested in overcoming the physiological challenges of altitude.
With that in mind, Roach's second grant will study how people acclimatize to hypoxia. Right now little is known about the acclimatization process when it comes to the interaction on a cellular level between genes and proteins. This study will be the first of its kind to use cutting edge genomic technologies to explore how the human body combats low oxygen levels. Roach and his team hope to use the insights gained to develop new drugs to improve human performance when oxygen is limited, and to prevent and treat many diseases related to the lack of oxygen.
"We recently showed that when people spent 10 hours in a high altitude, low oxygen environment a number of genes and proteins were turned on, and after 32 days of low oxygen in mice, more than 500 genes were turned off and on," Roach said.
"We believe these studies will rapidly advance the field of high altitude medicine and biology with ultimate benefits to soldiers deployed to high altitude regions of the world, and to all people at low altitude suffering from a lack of oxygen" he said. "And we also believe these studies will save lives."