Researcher will use hypoxia chamber to investigate susceptibility to acute mountain sickness

The first Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between William & Mary and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) has its roots in one professor’s quest to provide his class with a textbook.

In 1996, Ken Kambis, professor of Kinesiology and Health Science at the College, wanted to teach a senior-level course in environmental human physiology, specifically looking at the effects of environmental extremes on human performance. The only textbook available on the subject had been written by three eminent scientists, all affiliated with USARIEM.

Kambis drove to Natick, Mass., home to USARIEM, filled his order, struck up a relationship with one of the book’s editors, and eventually worked with them on a half-dozen or so projects, including high-altitude projects at Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs.

In October, Kambis, the College and USARIEM agreed to collaborate on research primarily focused on Acute Mountain Sickness, most especially as it affects women. Kambis already has 20 of the 36 volunteers he is seeking, nine of whom have completed a rigorous pre-testing indoctrination. His subjects will come primarily from the student body, while USARIEM will continue its work with subjects up to age 35.

Kambis: Going to altitudeA few days after being tested at sea level, subjects will enter the College’s normobaric hypoxia chamber. The oxygen they breathe will be reduced to the level found at an altitude of 3,500 meters. During the subjects’ 30-minute “rest” period, researchers will measure heart rate, the amount of oxygen being carried by the red blood cells and the concentration of carbon dioxide in an exhaled breath.

Then, subjects will pedal a stationary bicycle for 10 minutes, followed by more measurements.

“Since the American military was historically made up of men and most of the research done was 20 to 30 years ago, our primary focus initially is to recruit women for the study to improve the universal database on women at altitude in this age range,” he said.

Kambis anticipates that the agreement between the College and USARIEM will last at least three years, and probably more like five. After the study on women, Kambis expects future studies will focus on ethnicities.

“We’re looking for very small, nuanced differences,” he said. “What we hope to find is some easily testable sea-level metric that can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether this person is going to be more susceptible to acute mountain sickness when they rapidly go to high altitude or less susceptible. If they’re more susceptible, we can flag that person and tag them better with pre-acclimation or slower ascent or some drugs that might work favorably.

“From a military standpoint, you don’t want someone rapidly deployed to a mountainous region of the world who jumps out of a helicopter at 12,000-feet altitude onto the ground carrying a 75-pound pack, who’s expected to make decisions and physically exert themselves at very high level and they get sick. That means they have to be rescued then, and that puts a lot of other people at risk.”

But there are practical, everyday, uses for this information as well. More and more people are taking to the ski slopes for recreation. They travel from somewhere at sea level – like Williamsburg – to somewhere at a much higher altitude, say Denver. They rent a car, drive to Vail, at 7,500 feet, then get on a ski lift that elevates them several thousand feet higher.

“And they do this within 15 hours,” Kambis said. “That is a very rapid ascent to a very high altitude. Then they wonder why they feel bad. Within six or seven hours at this high altitude exposure, they may come down with some rather serious cases of acute mountain sickness. Some people simply are unable to do anything, and spend a couple of days in the hospital.

“We hope that any of the information we garner from a project like this will help everyone, not just military age people.”  Ideation