Mr Gilbert-Kawai, can you tell us more exactly what altitude sickness is?
There are many non-specific symptoms – headaches, tiredness, problems sleeping, nausea. In extreme cases, a cerebral or pulmonary oedema can be life threatening. The best cure is not to go any higher. All of those problems have to do with lack of oxygen and can begin at the height of 2,000 meters.
Is it possible to tell who is more likely to suffer from altitude sickness?
That is the Holy Grail of alpine medicine. Up until now we have had no way of telling. Each individual takes a different amount of time to become used to the conditions.
As part of your research you built the highest laboratory in the world, the Xtreme Everest Camp…
We compared two groups: a hundred lowlanders and a hundred Sherpas. The latter are born at Mount Everest and are unusually accustomed to the altitude. Tourists usually need ten days to do the stretch from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp but the Sherpas only need three, carrying heavy loads. We discovered that Sherpas have an unusual physiology but not in the way everyone expected. They have more blood vessels servicing the mitochondria, which power our cells. Additionally they use oxygen far more efficiently than lowlanders. Using these discoveries, we are trying to help patients with other illnesses in intensive care units. Often one of their biggest problems is also a lack of oxygen.
The interview was conducted by Friederike Biron