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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”