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Extreme research: five things I've learned from my hike up Kilimanjaro

Recently I joined a 27-strong research team on an 11 day hike up Africa's highest mountain, led by the world renowned medical research group from Mayo Clinic. The goal was to find out how our bodies react to oxygen deprivation and whether this can be used to find new ways to treat cardiac and respiratory illnesses. Here are five things I learned:

1: There's no gain without pain

As I shared my sleeping bag for the eleventh night in a row with a barrage of devices, I could have wondered why I'd signed up for this. I lay next to batteries and bottles of ultrasound gel to prevent them from freezing, plus I had a cannula up my nose, a pulse oximeter clip on each hand, a respiratory belt around my chest and a wearable on each biceps. But the continuous monitoring was a crucial part of the research work. Tracking our group's biometrics --including pulse, respiration and the amount of oxygen in our blood (or Sp02) -- made it possible to build up a full picture of how our bodies were reacting to the extreme (and sometimes extremely uncomfortable) conditions. 

Research lab tents in the first multi-day test camp on Shira Plateau, 3504 m amsl.

2. Mountains make excellent laboratories

I work as a clinical researcher in patient monitoring for Philips Research. Surprisingly little is still known about what happens to our bodies when they are continuously exposed to low oxygen levels, similar to those experienced by patients suffering from heart failure or obstructive sleep apnea, during which our Sp02 drops and breathing rate spikes or becomes erratic. In principle, the research team of Mayo Clinic could have used a hypobaric chamber to simulate those conditions in one person over a few hours. But going up a mountain like Kilimanjaro is even better. The high altitude naturally induced similar responses. For example, a typical person's Sp02 is normally in the high 90%. For some people on the hike, that dropped to 70% or even lower, which gave a unique insight into their body's coping mechanisms. Climbing up Kilimanjaro also made it possible to observe a whole group of healthy people of varying ages (from 25 to 65) at the same time. This was key as the goal was to track how these conditions affect hearts and lungs differently as people age. 

 

3. The data could herald new treatments for cardiac and respiratory illnesses

Ultrasound screenings and continuous monitoring have provided clues about how our bodies compensate for the lack of oxygen.  By analyzing the collected data, the aim is to uncover new ways to treat cardiac and respiratory illnesses in hospitalized patients by inducing the body's natural processes. I can also see potential applications for mountaineering. Until recently, high quality ultrasound could only be delivered by large devices (mostly in hospitals). But new portable ultrasounds, might be used in the future to track the lung edema of climbers. This could help to spot potential problems earlier on, which would then enable them to descend a mountain safely, for example.

Philips crew on the ‘Roof of Africa’, 5895 m amsl: Neil Mooers (left) and Marek Bartula (right).

4. Partnering up gets the best results

At Philips, we know that healthcare systems are under strain as global populations are growing and aging. We're innovating to develop digital solutions that deliver more predictive and preventative care, specifically in fields such as cardiology and respiratory diseases. But we also know we can't find all the solutions alone. That's why for the past two years I've worked with the team from Mayo Clinic led by Dr. Bruce Johnson, who heads up the Human Integrative and Environmental Physiology lab, bringing together their world-class expertise in pulmonary and cardiovascular physiology in extreme conditions with leading solutions of Philips in patient monitoring and sleep diagnosis. 

 

5. Extreme research is addictive

The next hike is already being planned for early 2018. This time, the focus will be on respiratory research and the team will be pushing themselves even harder by going up Aconcagua, which at 6961 meters is the highest peak in South America and more than 1,000 meters higher than Kilimanjaro.

For now, I have great memories of our Kili climb. Along with the rest of the team, I walked 90 kilometers, experienced mild symptoms of altitude sickness and lost several kilos. Yet summiting the mountain to stand on the roof of Africa made it all worth it. 

Marek Bartula

Research Scientist in Patient Care and Measurements, Philips Research

 

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