At the limit of what’s possible. Even the imagination is not powerful enough to describe the adventure we have just experienced in the highest city in the world: La Rinconada. At an altitude of 5300m, our team of scientists, led by researcher Samuel Vergès, has just written a major page in the book on the study of altitude and hypoxia. Results that should lead to significant advances for the inhabitants of the heights but also for those of the plains.
Researchers, those adventurers…
I was marked by the self-sacrifice of the researchers, far removed from the usual clichés: white coat, microscope lab… But also far from the criticisms sometimes drained by social networks, where they are caricatured, strolling around with taxpayers’ money. But the real story is more beautiful, more gruelling too.
These two weeks at an altitude of 5300 metres prevented us from sleeping and eating properly. We experienced cold and Spartan comfort. But researchers have something rare: passion. They are particularly fascinated by the complexity of the world around us. They are constantly searching, sometimes without finding. It doesn’t matter: they put their knowledge at the service of humans.
More than 800 patients benefited from a medical consultation.
Numerous studies have shown the physiological particularities developed by the permanent inhabitants above 3500m altitude. But no study has ever been able to examine a population of the heights like that of La Rinconada. To reconstitute an ephemeral laboratory in such a place was already a feat. I also remember the problems we had with Samuel behind our computers, switching between Spanish, English and French to send 500 kilos of cutting-edge equipment to the other side of the world. It was a real challenge that had to be overcome. And we succeeded.
More than 800 patients were able to benefit from a medical consultation, where most had never seen a doctor before in their lives. 50 will have been able to undergo a series of more in-depth examinations. Exceptional values were thus collected: haematocrit levels of over 80%, for example, which we, the inhabitants of the plain, could not bear. Moreover, these inhabitants generally reported symptoms of chronic mountain sickness with very dilated blood vessels, probably necessary for the flow of blood but which could induce other health problems.
Samuel Vergès, impressed by these values, slipped into the corner of my ear that such measures would lead us to the emergency room. I also learned with Yann Savina and Aurélien Pichon that the dilation of these vessels was almost at its maximum, leaving little room for the human body to adapt to other events or stimuli. The very proof that we are at the limits of what our human body can withstand…
Staying at La Rinconada, though…
Behind these data lie human beings who are aware of the risks they are exposed to at such an altitude. In spite of the more than busy days, I took the time to chat with a few miners in the waiting room. Why do they stay here?” “Just to live” one of them answers me, sitting on the chair, helmet firmly on his head and hands blackened by work.
Next door, Pedro, only 17 years old, with a smile on his face, exudes youth and joie de vivre. He explains to me that he comes here to “finance his studies during the holidays”. He studies architecture in Lima and dreams of discovering France. As for the others, those who are born, grow up and live at the limits of what the human body can bear, in an air depleted of 50% oxygen, that’s another story. You will never see them complain about living conditions. We do it for them. They are aware of the harshness of everyday life and still dream of a better life: about 25% of them suffer from mountain sickness.
Studying but also helping the population of the highest city in the world will have not only allowed them to question themselves but also to explore the world of hypoxia in a different way. The traditional view of the mechanisms associated with chronic mountain sickness suggests a direct link between excessive polyglobulism – that is, the amount of red blood cells – and chronic mountain sickness. Samuel, with his eyes glued to his data-filled board, describes to me with tweezers intermediate mechanisms that seem more complex.
There are therefore other factors which may either allow inhabitants to tolerate very high haematocrit levels (probably due to particular physical characteristics of the red blood cells or due to vascular compensation mechanisms: significant dilatation for example), or to be responsible for symptoms of chronic mountain sickness even though the haematocrit is not excessively high. All of this will require further a posteriori analysis on our return to Grenoble.
After the time of collection, the time of analysis
In a hurry, science would deliver imprecise secrets. The first results should therefore be available by the end of 2019, but only if the necessary funds are raised. Although this first part of the project has been financed thanks to patronage, we are aware that the continuation of the analyses, particularly biological and genetic, has a significant cost. Approximately 100,000 euros have yet to be found. Such a large sum to enable research to move forward and explore new possibilities. We must now seek and find this help.
I often have fun reading a sad portrait of La Rinconada in the press. Personally, I have a different vision of it. I have lived there and I have shared a lot with the inhabitants: children, women and men. I took the time to have some bad moments but also some very good ones. Especially with the young people that I saw playing football and who offered me the chance to kick the ball with them. But also with these workers who are much more than just miners looking for gold; they are characters with their own unique stories. Nor will I forget those children I saw playing with almost nothing.
All this is thanks to this team of scientists who have something extra, and that deserves to be mentioned: By Axel PITTET, Communication Manager for Expedition 5300
By Axel PITTET, Communication Manager for Expedition 5300