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23 March 2004

How Impotence Pills Help Combat Altitude Sickness

Sport medicine experts from the University of Heidelberg have a lab 13,000 feet up in the mountains — "Tadalafil" effective as a remedy for acute pulmonary oedema

Mountaineers need two things to get to the summit: good physical condition and plenty of time. The time is needed for the body to adapt to changed environmental conditions at high altitudes. As the air gets thinner, the strain on the organism increases dramatically. Oxygen content falls by ten percent every 3,000 feet and even seasoned hikers find that difficult to cope with. "Unfortunately, more and more amateur mountaineers are tempted by extreme altitudes," says Peter Bärtsch. "Some of them book the ascent of Kilimanjaro in three days or fail to pace themselves properly when they go trekking in the Himalayas. The effects can be lethal." Together with Heimo Mairbäurl, his fellow professor at the Institute of Sport Science of the University of Heidelberg, he has been studying the phenomenon of altitude sickness for a number of years now. And they have come up with a highly interesting discovery. Impotence pills can be effective as an acute remedy against the much-feared pulmonary oedema.

Pulmonary oedema is a result of altitude sickness caused by the co-incidence of thinner air and excessive strain. In most individuals it initially takes a form similar to tipsiness: slight dizziness, headache, drowsiness. In severe cases, however, the effects can be potentially fatal: depression, hallucinations, gasping, coughing blood. Pressure in the lung increases, the vascular walls of the bubbles in the lung gradually become permeable, blood and tissue fluid penetrate the lung and the patient suffocates. "Cases like this are rare in the Alps," says Bärtsch, "but in Asia in particular, a significant number of people are killed this way every year on mountain hikes at heights of 12,000 feet and more." Together with their doctoral students, Bärtsch and Mairbäurl do their research at the Margherita station over 13,000 feet (4559 metres) up in the Italian Monte Rosa massif. Last year the two professors were once again successful in enlisting the voluntary support of 40 probands for their project. Altitude sickness overcomes some of them on the way up to the outpost. They are treated on the spot. Especially "interesting" for the Heidelberg scientists are mountain hikers who have had an oedema before. This is a risk group with a higher likelihood of developing precisely the same condition over and over again. The best remedy is oxygen plus impotence pills.

The scientists give their probands a medicine called "Tadalafil". It is similar to Viagra in its effects, but they last a few hours longer. "It can reduce the potentially lethal pressure in the lung very quickly. It has proved its worth in acute emergencies," says Bärtsch. The Heidelberg scientists spend a month every year high up in the mountains, where they are joined by physicians from Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Belgium. But the Margherita station is only open between mid June and mid September because the weather conditions prevailing there are so extreme. A helicopter takes their equipment to the station: an X-ray device, a device for measuring gas in the blood, computers … An entire laboratory. "But it's not a mountain vacation," smiles Mairbäurl, himself an enthusiastic mountaineer. "We work throughout the day, from the early morning to 9 p.m. We have to make the best use we can of every single day because the time at our disposal for collecting research results is severely limited."

But the results with the impotence pill "Tadalafil" are so convincing that he and Bärtsch are carrying on the good work. Now they are looking for sponsors willing to support a new scientific project. The market is not lucrative enough for the pharmaceutical industry, so there is no help to be expected from that quarter. "But we have our eye on another very promising agent and we'll be testing it thoroughly over the next few years. It looks like it will be even more effective than Tadalafil," says Bärtsch.

Dr. Johannes Schnurr

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Heimo Mairbäurl
University Hospital for Internal Medicine and Polyclinic
Internal Medicine VII Sport Medicine
phone: 06221/568103

Journalists should contact
Irene Thewalt
Press Office of the University of Heidelberg

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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