Whether it's due to jetpacks, augmented reality, or gene therapy, the future of mountaineering might look very different. In terms of gene therapy, this technology may have the potential to make the mountains more accessible and much safer.
Through years of research into a sometimes fatal condition commonly known as 'altitude sickness,' scientists have determined that symptoms of the condition, also called chronic mountain sickness (CMS), are most likely the result of a population-specific "maladaptation" that impacts up to half of the human population. In other words, some groups of people are genetically inclined to experience severe altitude sickness symptoms because their genes limit their ability to to adjust to high elevation environments. The basis for this assumption lies in how some populations that have traditionally lived at higher elevations around the globe, like those in the Himalayas, tend to be less susceptible to the condition.
If altitude sickness is indeed the result of genetics developed over time, this may mean that the condition could be treated with gene therapy. Research has already found several "candidate genes" that could be the underlying cause behind the maladaptation, meaning that if these genes were successfully targeted with treatment, it may help to limit effects of the condition.
As might be expected, gene therapy is very complicated. Cleveland Clinic describes the process as a doctor delivering a healthy copy of a gene to cells inside the body via injection or IV with the hope that the healthy gene will "replace a damaged (mutated) gene, inactivate a mutated gene, or introduce an entirely new gene." Obviously, a ton of research and development must also go into creating that healthy gene first, but this could mean that if scientists are able to fully determine what aspect of the genetic code is causing altitude sickness, they may be able to alter it in a way that eliminates the maladaptation.
If gene therapy technology as it relates to altitude sickness continues to develop, it may add another tool that some people could use to better their mountain climbing potential. Having another option for combating altitude sickness would be hugely beneficial, as only a couple medicines are available for preventing altitude sickness (dexamethasone and acetazolamide, 2021) and only one medicine is recommended as a truly effective treatment (dexamethasone).
Not only would a gene therapy option make exploring the mountains safer for many of those already doing so, it would also make high-elevation landscapes more accessible for those that may avoid them due to CMS concerns. While many people don't start to feel the effects of elevation until they've spent several hours above 8,000 feet, others can experience symptoms of a devastating degree at a much lower elevation in a much shorter time frame – during a layover at Denver International Airport, for example. For those that face altitude sickness concerns on a regular basis, this technology could be life-changing, and for the rest of us, it could make the mountains a lot more fun.
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