Sherpa survival strategy could improve care

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For centuries the Sherpa peoples of the Himalayas have lived in air so thin in oxygen that lowlanders find every breath difficult – now our researchers have shown how, and how it could improve NHS critical care.

On 23 May 2007 at the summit of Mount Everest a small team of exhausted Southampton doctors and scientists jabbed their own femoral arteries to take blood samples.

A decade of groundbreaking research into low oxygen effects on the body followed, and ten years on, Professor Mike Grocott and the Xtreme Everest team returned to the Himalayas to share these with the Sherpa and Nepalese clinicians.

Living with less oxygen

One in five people in the UK end up in intensive care at some point and, of those, 25-30 per cent die, with lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, a major contributory factor. Yet the Sherpa have lived normally in similarly low oxygen at high altitude for generations.

Renowned as expert mountaineers, many Sherpas have climbed Mount Everest, the most famous being Tenzing Norgay, part of the first ever successful ascent with Edmund Hillary.

While lowlanders must acclimatise over days and weeks to low oxygen to avoid altitude sickness, the latest findings show that Sherpas have adapted genetically over the last 500-600 years, having a version of a key gene that enables their cells to use oxygen more efficiently.    

Better critical care

The Xtreme Everest team returned to the Sherpa capital of Namche to share their findings and thank the Sherpa community. Among the crowd to hear theme was Edmund Hillary’s cook.

“We have been extremely fortunate to work with the Sherpa community in Nepal,” said Prof Grocott. “Without them the expeditions could not have taken place, nor would we have made these findings.”

They also held a two-day conference, KnO2wledge Kathmandu, sharing their wider findings with local medical professionals.

Just one of many discoveries made by Xtreme Everest and our BRC, this result has identified new targets for drugs and care that improve oxygen uptake in critically ill and trauma patients.

Posted on Wednesday 19 July 2017