School of Medicine's Altitude Research Center goes to great heights for medical discoveries
by Amy Vaerewyck
True or False: If you’re in good physical shape, you won’t get altitude sickness.
You could ask Robert Roach, PhD, for the answer.
Director of the Altitude Research Center (ARC) at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Roach has studied altitude here for eight years, and has studied altitude impacts on humans for 33 years—in Washington, New Mexico, Alaska, Denmark, Bolivia and Italy.
Roach and his fellow ARC researchers were the first to determine that it’s possible to predict altitude sickness in a controlled laboratory setting. They’ve received a multi-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to determine if their methods will work in the field too.
Recently, they flew 140 human subjects from Dallas to Denver, bused them up to Breckenridge, Colo., and studied them as they ran and hiked in Summit County. Some experienced symptoms of altitude sickness, and some didn’t.
“[Altitude sickness] is hard to predict.”
Roach and his team used blood samples—taken before the subjects left Dallas—to predict who would get sick. Then, they tested their predictions by measuring the symptoms and performance of each individual. Now, they’re waiting for official results from the tests.
“[Altitude sickness] is hard to predict,” Roach said. “Right now, the only way to do it is by who’s gotten it before. That’s why our [altitude research] is so important.” An accurate predictive test could have significant consequences for military units deploying at altitude.
A mountaineer himself, Roach said when he first started mountaineering, people would get sick in the mountains, but no one knew exactly why.
“Thirty years later, we’re still working on the answer,” he said.
“You can climb a ‘fourteener’ right here on campus.”
Located on the university’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo., the Altitude Research Center sits at a modest elevation. But, Roach said, with its state-of-the-art altitude chamber, “You can climb a ‘fourteener’ right here on campus.”
A steel cylinder 15 feet in diameter, the chamber is used almost daily to simulate the conditions of high altitude and study its effects on the human body. It was designed by the military to simulate an altitude of up to 60,000 feet.
“[However], you can’t safely go, in a day, to much above 20,000 feet,” Roach said.
“Our multi-faceted approach to altitude is unique.”
ARC is the successor to the Colorado Altitude Research Institute, which was created in the 1990s. A part of the School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine, it was founded in 2003 by Roach and Professor Benjamin Honigman, MD, to explore how altitude and hypoxia (the lack of oxygen) affect health and performance.
“It’s an amazing resource,” said Jon Kark, an ARC student researcher and second-year medical student at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “There are very few places where there’s an altitude chamber so close to a clinical facility. We have researchers and physicians all in one place, so our multi-faceted approach to altitude is unique.”
ARC researchers are investigating applications to clinical medicine and linkages between hypoxia and chronic diseases. For example, a healthy human body at high altitude may experience effects similar to a human body at low altitude with a chronic condition, such as pulmonary hypertension—which may lead to clues for treating such conditions. ARC’s work is important for hospitals, tourism, military and anyone at altitude, Kark said.
This year, Roach’s team will take 24 human subjects to the mountains of Bolivia to study the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the way the human body adjusts to altitude. If all goes as planned, Kark will join the 17,000-foot-high fun.
Still wondering about that opening question? Find the answer from the Altitude Research Center.