According to Their Blood, They 'Should Have Been Dead'

How the highest lab on the planet tried to unlock the secrets of human oxygen efficiency
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 21, 2018 11:35 AM CDT
In this Feb. 22, 2016, file photo, international trekkers pass through a glacier at the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal.   (AP Photo/Tashi Sherpa, file)

(Newser) – Mike Grocott's resume may seem at odds with itself at first glance: The Brit is a professor of anesthesia and what Americans would call ICU-related medicine, and he also heads up Xtreme Everest, which has essentially put a lab higher than any other on Earth to study how oxygen-light altitudes impact the human body. But the two actually go hand in hand, Richard Benson explains in Wired UK. What Grocott is doing on Everest actually "has relevance to the way we treat the very sick in intensive care." Benson explains that not enough oxygen getting to one's vital organs is actually what most kills ICU patients. And as Grocott's research has shown, health and fitness aren't what determine human oxygen efficiency. "Xtreme Everest has taken 70-year-old civilians up the mountain with no problems, but fit, young military personnel have had to turn back," Benson writes.

It comes down to genetics, and Xtreme Everest is on the hunt for the genes at play, in the hopes of one day producing research that could produce drugs that could bump up one's oxygen efficiency. And so in 2007, Grocott and his colleagues set out for Everest. They sent nearly 30 tons of equipment to Kathmandu and then moved much of it—via helicopters, yaks, and Sherpas—to base camp, where they planned to put about 200 volunteers who had trekked to base camp, where oxygen was 53% what it is at sea level, through some 60 tests—and take the blood of 15 of them some 1,300 feet from the top. "Their samples remain the least oxygenated human blood ever collected in healthy humans" and "according to science, the climbers should have been dead." Read the full story, which explains a 2013 repeat of the effort, with a twist. (Read more Longform stories.)

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