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Altitude Center Climbing Higher

Rockies Make for a Natural Backyard Laboratory




By Tonia Twichell

(May 2014) Studies on the effect of altitude on humans have been going on in Colorado since the early 20th century when English researchers came to the Rocky Mountains looking for answers impossible to find in the low-slung hills of Britain.

Decades later, researchers from CU’s cardio-vascular-pulmonary lab (CVP) pioneered studies about how humans and animals adjust to high altitude, with research carried out on Pike’s Peak, in Leadville and on cattle ranches around the state.

Today, the University of Colorado Altitude Research Center, with an entire mountain range for a backyard laboratory, has taken a national lead in research, education and patient care.

“There is no other center that is focused on all aspects,” says Ben Honigman, MD, an emergency medicine professor. “This is a good place for it. Colorado has the most people who live above 5,000 feet and there are almost three-quarters of a million people who live above 6,000 or 7,000 feet. Twenty million tourists come here each year.”

Center Director Rob Roach, PhD, identifies two main missions.

“One is to research the fundamental medical and biological processes related to hypoxia,” he says. “The second is to connect health providers in isolated mountain towns with state-of-the-art research at CU.”

CU researchers and clinicians have historically been involved in altitude studies, but the university’s dominant role is recent.

In the 1980s, a Summit County center called Colorado Altitude Research Institute (CARI) began studying the effects of hypoxia on people traveling to moderate elevations. At CU, CVP researchers focused on people who lived in the Colorado’s high country, Honigman says.

“Up until then, most of the work done for altitude illness was done at very, very high elevations,” says Honigman. “There were a lot of studies in the Himalayas or South America.”

When CARI closed for lack of funding in the 1990s, the onus lay on CU to expand its work. In 2003, CU opened the Altitude Research Center.

“If any place in the country should be a great center for researching hypoxia, it should be the University of Colorado,” Roach, an associate professor at the School of Medicine, says.

Center researchers have studied the effects of altitude on exercise, blood flow to the brain, cardiovascular health in Colorado as well as on the higher peaks – most recently the Himalayas and the Andes.

Research has progressed from strictly physiological trials on the effects of hypoxia, to the molecular level of what genes protect the body from the effects of hypoxia and why certain people are more affected by oxygen deprivation.

All four CU campuses are engaged in hypoxia studies because oxygen deprivation affects a variety of diseases and processes. So the center has begun an outreach tour to learn how better to coordinate studies both in and outside the university system, Roach says.

For example, a recent partnership with a Summit County cardiologist who wanted help with patients suffering from pulmonary hypertension will benefit university clinicians and researchers and patients in mountain communities.

“We put him together with experts at CU also,” he says. “They came up with ideas on how to do studies to better diagnose and treat his patients and provided opportunities for the CU researchers to have a unique patient research base. It’s a win-win for everyone.”