Pint of Science Edinburgh 2017: Our bodies in extreme environments

As I headed downstairs to the basement bar of Canons’ Gait, I wondered what on earth Olympic athletes and astronauts could have in common with intensive care and cancer patients. As it turns out, a startling amount. When we think of astronauts and athletes, we think of their victories and their superhuman fitness. We forget about the extreme stresses to which they subject their bodies; often similar stresses that come hand-in-hand with extreme illness. This evening’s Pint of Science event demonstrated how studying people in extreme environments could benefit critically ill patients.

The evening began with introductions from science festival regular Dr Bunhead. Once everyone was settled with their pints, Dr Kenneth Baillie, an intensive care doctor at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, asked us to consider what might link mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary to a 12-year-old Polio patient, Vivi Ebertwasthe. Seeing the two side by side, it was hard to imagine any similarities between a man, at the peak of physical fitness, who had conquered Everest; and a bedbound patient who seemed to be at death’s door. When Vivi was admitted to hospital in 1952, she was starved of oxygen, taking 44 breaths per minute to try to stay alive. The world’s first intensive care patient, Vivi survived against the odds thanks to the incredible innovation of her doctor, Bjorn Ibsen. Dr Ibsen created the first life support system, organising doctors to cover shifts of manual ventilation, relieving Vivi of the burden of breathing. Not only did she recover from her illness, she survived for a further 19 years. The following year, embarking on a trek to the peak of Mount Everest, Sir Hillary similarly overcame the effects of lack of oxygen by carrying an oxygen tank. But did he really need it? In 1978 two mountaineers set out to prove otherwise, and succeeded. Neither mountaineer suffered any injuries or impairments from the journey, but did find it a struggle. One of the climbers was quoted “I am but one single gasping, floating lung”.

The final ‘hero of hypoxia’ of the evening was Olympic cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy. In 2007 Hoy attempted to break the world record for the high altitude 1km time trial event. He cycled at around 70mph for just under one minute at high altitude and survived. In fact, he suffered no lasting harm at all, but unfortunately didn’t manage to break the record.

50 years on from the world’s first intensive care patient, with the knowledge that patients don’t need as much oxygen as was once believed, doctors discovered that many of the patients in the intensive care unit had severe inflammation of the lungs: patients had been receiving too much oxygen. This discovery and subsequent reduction in the amount of oxygen given to patients has saved 10% more lives.

After a wonderful, improvised journey through his career path, we were introduced to the next speaker, Dr Richard Skipworth. He introduced us to microgravity and muscles, and explained how studying astronauts in space could help us to treat cancer on earth. The example given was cancer cachexia, a muscle wasting disease with associated weight loss, in which survival rates are drastically lower than in other cancers. The cause of the muscle loss is manifold, which makes it difficult to study. As humans enter space, they also experience muscle wasting due to the lack of gravity. This fact inspired a trip to NASA for Dr Skipworth in search of methods to research and treat the disease. Muscle loss of astronauts in space, in contrast to cancer cachexia, is due to a single factor – lack of activity. This is something that can be simulated on earth with healthy volunteers, giving new hope for patients and opening up new treatments. While the evening’s event might have deterred the audience from long-harboured dreams of becoming astronauts, it offered a new perspective on medical research and the possibilities it presents.


This article was written by Dawn Gillies and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.

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