April 16, 2014
Climbing Mount Everest To Learn More About Type 2 Diabetes
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Most people engage in extreme sports, such as climbing Mount Everest, in an attempt to gain insight about themselves. A group of researchers from the University of Southampton and University College London (UCL) climbed Mount Everest to gain new insights into the molecular process of how some people get Type II diabetes. Their findings, published in PLOS ONE, could lead to new ways of preventing people from getting the condition.
The study was designed to assess the mechanisms by which low oxygen levels in the body, called hypoxia, are associated with insulin resistance.
Insulin allows the body to regulate sugar levels, which is necessary for good health. When cells fail to respond to insulin in the body, the patient is said to have developed insulin resistance. This resistance causes there to be too much sugar in the body, which is toxic and leads to Type II diabetes.
Following sustained exposure—six to eight weeks—to hypoxia at high altitudes, the researchers found that several markers of insulin resistance were increased. The change in these biomarkers is related to increased blood levels of markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, as well.
The researchers collected their data as part of a study in 2007 called Caudwell Xtreme Everest. This study was coordinated by the UCL Center for Altitude, Space and Extreme environment medicine (CASE Medicine) and led by Southampton Professor of Anaesthesia and Critical Care, Mike Grocott.
Grocott is also the co-founder of UCL Case Medicine and currently leads the Critical Care Research Area within the Southampton National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit.
“These results have given us useful insight into the clinical problem of insulin resistance. Fat tissue in obese people is believed to exist in a chronic state of mild hypoxia because the small blood vessels are unable to supply sufficient oxygen to fat tissue. Our study was unique in that it enabled us to see things in healthy people at altitude that which we might normally only see in obese people at sea level. The results suggest possible interventions to reduce progression towards full-blown diabetes, including measures to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation within the body,” Grocott said in a statement.
Twenty-four participants traveled to Mount Everest, undergoing assessments of glucose control, body weight changes and inflammation biomarkers at Everest Base Camp. Half of the study group remained at Base Camp, at an altitude of approximately 17,400 feet, while half climbed to a maximum elevation of approximately 29,000 feet—the highest point on the mountain. Measurements were taken for both groups at six weeks and eight weeks into the trip.
The research team wanted to increase scientific understanding of critically ill patients, as well as achieve the first ever blood oxygen measurement for a human at 27,600 feet on the Balcony of Everest—a small platform past Camp IV where climbers can rest and take in the view at the top of the world.
Hypoxia is a fundamental problem for patients who are critically ill, and this study is part of an extensive and continuing program of research into hypoxia, improving the care of the critically ill, and human performance at extreme altitudes. The same team of researchers has continued this program with Xtreme Everest 2 in the spring of 2013.
Dr Daniel Martin, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant, UCL Division of Surgery and Interventional Science and Director of UCL CASE Medicine, added, “These exciting results give us a unique insight into the possible mechanism of insulin resistance in diabetes and provide some clues as to where we should be thinking about focusing further research on novel treatments for this disease. It also demonstrates the value of using healthy volunteers in studies carried out at high altitude to patients at sea level. Our high altitude experimental model for investigating every day illnesses that involve tissue hypoxia is a fantastic way to test hypotheses that would otherwise be very difficult to explore.”