Extreme altitudes are a major barrier for troops fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan, and the military’s spent millions trying to minimize altitude’s impact on physical and cognitive ability. Now, Darpa-funded researchers are making impressive progress towards inhaled drugs that would pump up troop performance by fast-tracking the body’s natural adaptations to altitude.
The Pentagon’s blue sky research arm has awarded $4.7 million to scientists at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, to develop pharmaceuticals that can rapidly boost oxygen delivery. Blood carries less oxygen at high altitudes, leading to a lack of oxygen in bodily tissue, called hypoxia. That, in turn, can cause nausea, confusion and fatigue — hardly the attributes the military’s after in battle-ready troops. By augmenting blood flow to tissues, the research team hopes to enhance oxygen delivery too.
That’s an adaptive process the human body is already capable of, but the necessary acclimatization can take weeks. Dr. Jonathan Stamler, who’s leading the research at Case Western, says the drugs will essentially do what we already can.
“We’re essentially mimicking nature here,” he tells Danger Room. “Take people climbing mountains, who will set up base camps at varying altitudes to give their bodies time to adjust. We’re making these mechanisms much, much more acute — a matter of minutes, rather than days.”
The drugs will work by increasing blood levels of nitric oxide, which is naturally released by red blood cells to dilate vessels and increase blood flow.
Within three years, Darpa wants to see animal models and human subjects capable of immediately exercising more efficiently at altitude after taking the drugs. Stamler and co. are well on their way to meeting the ambitious goal: they’re already performing tests on animal models, and have applied for FDA approval to try the approach in people.
Stamler also anticipates widespread civilian applications for the drug, which will likely be dispensed in portable inhalers.
“A deficiency of nitric oxide has been observed in a number of conditions, from sickle cell disease to heart attacks and strokes,” he says.
Figuring out a quick way to increase nitric oxide levels might also help the military solve another major problem: donated blood that’s weeks old by the time it hits the front lines. Older blood is low on nitric oxide, which some scientists now suspect leads to risk of heart attack and stroke among transfusion recipients.
“If we can get this right for Darpa,” he says, “Then the actual approach could apply to much more than just altitude adaptations.”