April 3, 2009

Purdue researcher prepares to scale Mount Everest to help those affected by HIV/AIDS

J. Paul Robinson

Professor J. Paul Robinson hopes to raise more than a Purdue flag when he reaches the summit of Mount Everest.

He also hopes to raise awareness and funding to help those affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Robinson is making the trek to 29,029 feet to raise money for Cytometry for Life, a not-for-profit founded at Purdue to develop reliable, low-cost diagnostic tools that will facilitate treatment for AIDS victims across sub-Saharan Africa. Founded by Robinson and colleague Gary Durack in 2006, the group is an extension of the Purdue University Cytometry Laboratories within Bindley Bioscience Center.

"I think that spending two and a half months and untold hours training will return dividends because it might make the average person aware of the suffering from this dreadful disease," says Robinson, distinguished professor of veterinary medicine and biomedical engineering and director of Purdue University Cytometry Laboratories. "If people really understood what is happening in Africa, they would not be so lackadaisical about it."

According to UNAIDS, about 22 million people are living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, which remains the region in the world most heavily affected by the disease. In 2007, the area accounted for two-thirds of all people living with HIV and for three-quarters of AIDS deaths globally.

Heading to Everest

On March 28, Robinson departed for Kathmandu, Nepal, arriving on March 30. The next day, Robinson, fellow climbers and a team from expedition guide Himalayan Experience flew into the town of Lukla before beginning a 10-day walk to base camp.

"We'll be going from 2,840 meters (9,371 feet) to 5,140 meters (16,833 feet)," Robinson says. "We're walking up to base camp, which is only 2,500 feet lower than Mount McKinley. Then we stay there for two months going up and down Everest and trying to stay sane."

The period of April 11-May 29 will be spent making a series of trips to four camps placed along the route to the summit. The treks allow for a lengthy period of acclimatization so the body can adjust to the decrease in oxygen content.

"It's seven weeks of just practicing to get to the top and hoping that by the time the weather breaks you're ready and in the right place," Robinson says. "You can't go to the summit if you haven't acclimatized. People have problems with altitude sickness, and if you can't get over it you have to go back down. Hopefully you can get over it and go back up."

To prepare and qualify for a trek to the top of Everest, Robinson participated in one training mission and three expeditions. In Colorado, he learned about ice climbing and its safety issues; he followed that by tackling Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) in Washington state.

Climbs to Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet, and Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world at 26,758 feet, came next.

"It'll be one year almost to the day when I leave for Everest that I started doing all of this," Robinson says.

Robinson has continued to train at home and on campus by taking two-hour walks with his dog while carrying a 65-pound backpack. He also carries the backpack while walking on a treadmill at its maximum incline setting and climbing the south stairs at Ross-Ade Stadium several times a week.

"There are 62 stairs there and I know them intimately," Robinson says. "I do them 10-15 times in all kinds of weather — ice, snow, rain. The dog thinks I'm an idiot. He's smart enough that he goes up to the top and waits."

The mission

Robinson's dedication to training is spurred on by the reason behind the trip: to raise funds that will help Cytometry for Life develop low-cost and sustainable diagnostic equipment that can be used in rural African areas with minimal health care structure. Robinson has paid personally for his previous expeditions as well as the Everest trip so that all donations go into the C4L mission.

A critical step in determining treatment eligibility for HIV-infected individuals is the measurement of their CD4 cell count, which is used to monitor immune-system function. A declining CD4 count is associated with progression of the disease, and AIDS is officially diagnosed when the count drops below 200 per microliter of blood.

A count below 200 also qualifies individuals for antiretroviral therapy.

Current tests are conducted with flow cytometers, but Robinson says most machines are too complex and expensive for effective use in remote regions of Africa.

"I have all of these instruments — millions of dollars' worth — but they don't work out there," Robinson says. "From an engineering perspective, we have to engineer down and make things simpler and easier to use, not more complicated and more sophisticated. We have to think of a different approach."

That approach came in re-engineering existing technology to create a simple, portable, battery-operated device that costs $5,000 or less per unit to produce. The machine designed by Cytometry for Life can operate in remote, intemperate and humid regions and does not need a constant source of electricity.

Robinson says the instrument reduces the cost of a single test for CD4 to 50 cents or less.

Funds generated from Robinson's Everest climb will be used to complete the development and testing of the device.

"We've been working on this in the lab for a couple of years, but it's extremely difficult to raise funds," he says. "You ask why do I go [to Everest]? Well, that's one of the reasons. Can it be easier to climb Mount Everest than to raise money to develop low-cost technology to save lives in Africa? Yes, it can. What's wrong with that equation?"

Robinson hopes the entire campus will support the cause, and he plans to engage student groups to ask for their support.

"I don't expect people to come trekking up Mount Everest with me, but what I do want is for them to buy into this problem and help solve this," Robinson says.

To donate, follow the trip

Donations to Cytometry for Life can be made online at www.cytometryforlife.org. People donate on the site through Google or PayPal.

Donations also may be sent to Stadium Square Branch, Regions Bank, 728 Northwestern Ave.  West Lafayette, IN 47906. Checks should be made payable to Cytometry for Life.

People can follow Paul Robinson's Everest climb at www.cyto.purdue.edu/trackpaul  or through the Cytometry for Life site.