Career perspective: John B West
Department of Medicine 0623A, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA, 92093-0623, USA
Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2012, 1:11 doi:10.1186/2046-7648-1-11Published: 7 November 2012
I have been fortunate to work in two areas of extreme physiology and medicine: very high altitude and the microgravity of spaceflight. My introduction to high altitude medicine was as a member of Sir Edmund Hillary's Silver Hut Expedition in 1960–1961 when a small group of physiologists spent the winter and spring at an altitude of 5,800 m just south of Mt. Everest. The physiological objective was to obtain a better understanding of the acclimatization process of lowlanders during exposure to a very high altitude for several months. As far as we knew, no one had ever spent so long at such a high altitude before. The success of this expedition prompted me to organize the 1981 American Medical Research Expedition to Everest where the scientific objective was to determine the physiological changes that allow humans to survive in the extreme hypoxia of the highest point on earth. There is good evidence that this altitude is very near the limit of human tolerance to oxygen deprivation. Much novel information was obtained including an extraordinary degree of hyperventilation which reduced the alveolar partial pressure of carbon dioxide (Pco2) to about 8 mmHg (1.1 kPa) on the summit, and this in turn allowed the alveolar partial pressure of oxygen, PO2, to be maintained at a viable level of about 35 mmHg (4.7 kPa). The low Pco2 caused a severe degree of respiratory alkalosis with an arterial pH exceeding 7.7. These were the first physiological measurements to be made on the Everest summit, and essentially, none has been made since. The second extreme environment is microgravity. We carried out an extensive series of measurements on astronauts in the orbiting laboratory known as SpaceLab in the 1990s. Many aspects of pulmonary function are affected by gravity, so it was not surprising that many changes were found. However, overall gas exchange remained efficient. Some of the findings such as an anomalous behavior of inhaled helium and sulfur hexafluoride have still not been explained. Measurements made after astronauts were exposed to 6 months of microgravity in the International Space Station indicate that the function of the lung returns to its preexposure state within a few days.