SCOTS medical students are scaling 5,200 metres up a South American mountain in a bid to help save the lives of tens of thousands of intensive care patients. They will study the effects of altitude sickness on the human body caused by leaky blood vessels. Many of the symptoms are similar to those suffered by patients in intensive care and the students hope that the research will go towards helping around 20,000 people worldwide. The team of 30 from the University of Edinburgh set off on Saturday and are climbing to the top of Chacaltaya in Bolivia to carry out their research. They will use ultrasound to look at fluid in and around the lungs, stomach and abdomen at high altitude. Blood samples will then be taken among those taking part, which be analysed to find out which genes are linked to a build up of fluid. Andrew Beck, 24, a fourth year medical student from Glasgow, who is leading the expedition, said:
“It should be absolutely amazing. It’s been two years in the making.
“The aim is to understand more about the cause of altitude sickness and apply this to hospital patients back home and throughout the world. It also gives students experience in research and the chance to see Bolivia itself.’ The team will do their research in a Bolivian laboratory at the summit and stay there for around eight days. Andrew admits that the climbing won’t bother him as he has already climbed the Sierra Nevada mountains. But he added:
“We are taking people who have never climbed that high before and it is obviously a bit of a worry for them, it is quite dangerous.
“The aim is that we take people up who are pretty normal and who haven’t done any specific training so that we can see what the normal person’s reaction to altitude is.’ The expedition follows on from previous research, which identified that high altitude also caused fluid to build up around the heart as well as the brain and lungs. Dr Kenneth Baillie, lecturer in critical care at the University of Edinburgh, who has been involved in co-ordinating the expedition, said that the research could even help find treatments for altitude sickness but that the main aim was to help patients on sea-level. He added:
“We want to find better ways of treating these people. The aim is to understand the way people respond to the shortage of oxygen.
“It’s a unique way and we are very excited about it.’ Affymetrix, a group of former Edinburgh medical students who have carried out other expeditions for altitude research, will also be taking part and have donated equipment to the students. The equipment is able to analyse thousands of proteins to identify the genes involved in the build up of fluid. Pinpointing the key genes could help to devise treatments to prevent the build up of fluid among patients with intensive care. The expedition has also received sponsorship from Toshiba and an ultrasonographer will be accompanying the students on the trip. A doctor will also be on hand to help anyone who gets into difficulty.