The Independent London Newspaper
25th April 2014

Letters

HEALTH: Experts climbed mountain to study effects of low levels of oxygen on bodies

From left: Professor Mike Grocott, who led the 2007 study; Dr Richard Moon, professor of anesthesiology at Duke University in South Carolina; and Professor Monty Mythen

Published: 28 June, 2012
by TOM FOOT

A MISSION to the top of Mount Everest has helped experts understand how to improve care of patients in intensive care.

More than 250 experts – many from University College London Hospitals and University College London – were tested as they made the ­gruelling 18,000-ft trek up to base camp.

Eight reached the summit in what is believed to be the largest ever medical expedition at high altitude.

The aim was to investigate hypoxia – low oxygen levels found in healthy climbers at altitude – and see how ­people cope with it in different ways.

The findings are being brought to the bedside to help patients struggling to breathe in intensive care.

Summiteers, sherpas, scientists and clinicians involved in the “Caudwell Xtreme Everest expedition” met at an event in the UCL Institute of Child Health last week.

Professor Monty Mythen, consultant in anaesthesia and critical care and director of research and development at University College London Hospitals (UCLH), said: “One of the unifying theories that came out of the expedition is this idea of ‘Everest in utero’.

“When you grow in the womb, the level of oxygen you experience is almost the same as you experience on the summit of Everest. That means we have been there before.

“After you are born something changes in how rapidly you can adapt to that level again.

“Some people can walk to the summit without needing to adapt. For others it takes much longer.

“If we can understand our rate of adaptation we can establish the best way to treat them in intensive care.

“If patients are coping with low levels of oxygen we don’t have to put them on a ventilator which we know can cause harm.”

It is hoped the research will lead to improved treatments for conditions such as cystic fibrosis, acute respiratory distress syndrome, emphysema, septic shock and blue babies.

Since the trek, in May 2007, clinicians at UCLH and scientists at University College London have analysed the data and presented findings around the world. More than 20 articles have been published in scientific journals based on the data.

They found that, by coincidence, the summit of Everest is exactly at the limit of human tolerance for hypoxia.

Speaking at the anniversary meeting, Mike Grocott, leader of the 2007 study and Professor of Anaesthesia and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “We are very excited to be starting studies in patients to evaluate some of the treatments and tests that have been developed out of the 2007 expedition. These clinical studies will progress in parallel with studies in low-pressure chambers.”

Kay Mitchell, acting managing director of the Centre for Nurse and Midwife-led Research, said there were plans for a second trip in 2013. It will be led by senior lecturer in critical care at UCL and consultant at the Royal Free Hospital, Dr Dan Martin.

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