Griffith Professor Norm Morris will join a medical research expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a bid to better understand pulmonary hypertension and heart failure by measuring the effects of increased altitude.

A key feature of the pulmonary hypertensionis a marked decrease in exercise tolerance and an increased shortness of breath on mild exertion, similar to what mountain climbers experience at high altitude.

Pulmonary hypertension occurs when the pressure of the blood travelling between theheart and the lungs becomes excessive.

Professor Morris will leave for Tanzania at the beginning of August as part of the Heartclimb expedition and will trek with a group of 30 climbers from base camp in Mount Kilimanjaro at 7,380ft to the summit at 19,340ft.

Better disease diagnosis and management

“During an ascent, there is an increased drive to breathe that is very similar to what is observed in pulmonary hypertension and heart failure. This increased drive to breathe is related to disease severity and we believe that having a better understanding of this will help us diagnose and manage this disease better in the long term,” says Professor Morris from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

“We will be studying the responses to exercise of between 20 and 26 healthy climbers aged over 60, measuring how much they breathe along with their oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide gas production as we increase in altitude up the mountain. In addition, we will examine how much they desaturate during exercise.”

“Our testing will comprise a short exercise test in which gas exchange will be measured using our portable metabolic system. During the ascent the team will also monitor the symptoms of altitude sickness and undertake other tests including heart function using ultrasound, lung function, measure sleep quality and day and night time oxygen saturation.”

“This is a unique model to study and it will also provide us with novel data related to the acute onset of pulmonary hypertension and heart failure in a large group of older individuals, who may be more susceptible. We will also study the influence of taking a supplement Ribose (which may influence energy metabolism) on the effects of altitude sickness.”

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The Heartclimb expedition is being organised by Professor Bruce Johnson from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Professor Johnson undertakes research into heart failure and pulmonary hypertension, using hypoxia as an intervention to study the effects of these diseases. Professor Johnson, who was a visiting Sewell Fellow to Griffith University, has led several outdoor studies examining the effect of altitude on the heart and lung function, including one to Mount Everest in 2012.

Pulmonary hypertension is complex. Whilst relatively rare, patients often develop symptoms quite suddenly and often without any known cause.

The project is supported by Griffith University and an unrestricted education grant from Actelion Pharmaceuticals Australia