Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Where no mouse has gone before

Yes, mice are climbing Mount Everest as I post. They look so cute in their little parkas, and you should see the tiny little crampons they are wearing on their feet!

OK, I made up the part about the parkas and crampons, but the rest is true.

Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Tejvir Khurana, are carrying lab mice to the top of the world. This article, from New Scientist, describes how the mountain-climbing scientists will be testing the mice for changes associated with extreme altitude. The ultimate purpose of the study is to find a way to detect athletic doping.

As I discussed in a previous post, athletes often train at high altitudes so that their bodies make more red blood cells, improving their performance. The hormone responsible for the increase in red blood cells is erythropoeitin, or EPO. In the past, doping athletes used synthetic EPO to boost their blood cells, but there is now a test that can distinguish synthetic from naturally-produced EPO. Dopers could potentially get past that hurdle by using other substances (like mustard oil?), or even genetic manipulation, to stimulate the natural processes that induce EPO.

The researchers hope to stay one step ahead of the dopers by identifying markers in the tissues of blood of mice at high altitude. These markers could then be used in an anti-doping test to identify natural EPO produced by unnatural means as opposed to natural EPO produced in response to the perfectly legal practice of training at high altitude.

Now that's a claim to fame I can live without: first scientist to bleed a mouse at the summit of Mount Everest.

I think I'll have a cup of hot chocolate, now.