UO researchers and students head high up a Bolivian mountain

A team of University of Oregon researchers — led by Andrew Lovering, professor of human physiology — and several UO students are spending four to six weeks, beginning in early July, some 17,200 feet up Bolivia's Mount Chacaltaya.

They are part of an international effort, which includes 15 scientists, to better understand the basic cellular and molecular machinery — the physiology and genetics — involved in conditions of hypoxia, a disease condition triggered by low oxygen. It is common, for some people, in high altitudes, but it also occurs in people suffering from heart and lung diseases and some cancers.

"We are specifically looking at how the lungs regulate blood flow," Lovering said. His lab focuses on arterio-venous anastomoses — or how blood is shunted from an artery to a vein under certain stressful conditions.

"There are lots of people who suffer from hypoxia, even at sea level," Lovering said. "Their oxygen flow may be similar to that at 13,000-plus feet. Even healthy people may have problems adapting to high altitudes, while others adapt quite easily."

A long-term goal of the project — led by Robert Roach, director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine — is to determine what makes shunt pathways operate correctly and efficiently. A potential end target is a pill that might be used to counter the onset of mountain sickness and treat people with oxygen-related diseases.

Both Lovering and Roach also are studying the natives of high altitudes who seemingly adapt easily. "I am most interested in looking, in this project, at the differences between low-altitude natives and high-altitude natives -- how their blood flow is regulated in their shunt pathways," Lovering said.

Mount Chacaltaya is about 19 miles north of La Paz, in the Cordillera Real and part of the Bolivian Andes.

The UO will be represented on the expedition — they actually are driving up the mountain, not hiking — by Lovering and his departmental colleague Hans Dreyer, as well as a student-research team of graduates and undergraduates who will serve as technicians.

"This isn't about mountain climbing," Roach explained. "This research is about everybody in the world who experiences low oxygen diseases."

Twenty-five participants, ages 18 to 25 and many of them UO students, were selected during baseline health screenings at the UO in May.

"The UO's contribution in this project is huge," Roach said. "It was a great stroke of luck and serendipity that we were able to make this happen, and that Andy (Lovering) had the ability to put his whole lab on this project."

Eugene-area subjects were recruited because of their general fitness and health — and most importantly their daily living in near sea-level conditions. Once driven in teams up the mountain, they will be constantly monitored.

"Our subjects are healthy, but we will be really stressing them with the low oxygen levels on the mountain," Roach said. "We aim to isolate the effects of low oxygen and get a clear picture of what's going on. This is a very controlled study that will involve very sophisticated blood monitoring, genetic and cognitive testing."

The U.S. Department of Defense and private industry are funding the research.