The key to discovering a source for type 2 diabetes development and finding new ways to prevent the condition may lie at the summit of Mt. Everest. Researchers from the University of Southampton and the University College London (UCL) have traveled over 8,000 meters up Earth’s tallest mountain in hopes of revealing a link between low oxygen levels, also known as hypoxia, and the body’s resistance to insulin.

"These results have given us useful insight into the clinical problem of insulin resistance. Fat tissue in obese people is believed to exist in a chronic state of mild hypoxia because the small blood vessels are unable to supply sufficient oxygen to fat tissue,” lead researcher, Professor Mike Grocott, said in a statement. “Our study was unique in that it enabled us to see things in healthy people at altitude that which we might normally only see in obese people at sea level. The results suggest possible interventions to reduce progression towards full-blown diabetes, including measures to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation within the body."

Grocott and his colleagues relied on data from 24 people involved with Caudwell Xtreme Everest, a 2007 expedition coordinated by the UCL Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme environment medicine (CASE Medicine). The group was split in two, and one half was asked to climb a maximum of 8,848 meters while the other half remained at Everest Base Camp, an altitude of 5,300 meters. Physical assessments including glucose controls, body weight and inflammation biomarkers were taken at the beginning, week six and week eight of the trek.

For what is believed to be a first time discovery in the human body, the research team was able to measure oxygen levels at an altitude of 8,400 meters. The body’s low levels of oxygen are considered a fundamental problem in critically ill type 2 diabetes patients. In studying the mechanisms behind hypoxia and human performance at extreme altitude, researchers hope to uncover valuable treatment options for people in advanced stages of type 2 diabetes. In spring 2013, Xtreme Everest 2 was launched to add further data for the ongoing study.

"These exciting results give us a unique insight into the possible mechanism of insulin resistance in diabetes and provide some clues as to where we should be thinking about focusing further research on novel treatments for this disease,” said UCL CASE Medicine Director Dr. Daniel Martin. “It also demonstrates the value of using healthy volunteers in studies carried out at high altitude to patients at sea level. Our high altitude experimental model for investigating every day illnesses that involve tissue hypoxia is a fantastic way to test hypotheses that would otherwise be very difficult to explore."

According to the American Diabetes Association, the bodies of type 2 diabetes patients are either not able to produce enough insulin or their cells simply ignore insulin production. When cells fail to respond to insulin, insulin resistance, sugar levels (glucose) in the body are not regulated. After high blood glucose levels buildup, energy supply to cells is cut off and damage can occur in the eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart. Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating right are all considered preventive measures to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Source: Edwards L, Martin D, Grocott M, et al. The Effect of High-Altitude on Human Skeletal Muscle Energetics: 31P-MRS Results from the Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition. PLoS ONE. 2014.