Research Feature

Can Medicine Affect How We Fight?

When soldiers are dropped off at high altitudes such as in the mountains of Afghanistan, they often suffer from the effects of altitude sickness due to low oxygen. Soldiers have little time to acclimate, which can compromise their performance and safety. And oxygen tanks are too heavy and cumbersome. Through a $4.7-million contract with DARPA, Jonathan Stamler, MD, director of the Institute for Transformative Molecular Medicine and the Robert S. and Sylvia K. Reitman Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Innovation at Case Western Reserve and University Hospitals Harrington-McLaughlin Heart & Vascular Institute, is working to develop drugs that will help soldiers overcome these shortfalls.

When people go to a high altitude too quickly, their body senses that they don't have enough oxygen in their blood. But in addition to oxygen loss, nitric oxide (in a souped-up form called SNO) also becomes seriously depleted in the blood at the high altitude. "Our argument has been that if you could put the nitric oxide back in, then you could open the blood vessels and you could get more blood flow and get more oxygen to the tissues," says Stamler. So he is working to create drugs that replenish the SNO content of red blood cells, which will in turn dilate the blood vessels and increase blood flow and oxygen transport in the brain and muscles. Stamler hopes that these drugs could be available for use later this year.

By targeting SNO, Stamler believes that these therapies could also prove useful for treating other conditions associated with lack of oxygen such as heart attacks, kidney and heart failure and sickle-cell disease. "These therapies could be in use within a couple of years in everyday people," says Stamler. "These are very much a reality."