Adventure Guinea Pigs

Hugo and Ross are working in partnership with King’s College London’s, Department of Twin Research and GlaxoSmithKline’s, Human Performance Lab, to help better understand our genetic and physical make-up. They are the only twins in the world that are developing pioneering expeditions which provide a unique platform and opportunity for medical research to study how their bodies are affected (as twins) in hostile and extreme environments to advance medical knowledge and understanding.

During the Question Mt Elbrus expedition the medical research conducted on the twins’ (in conjunction with KCL and GSKHPL ) will focus on three areas; the Gut microbiome, Cortisol levels and daily fasting Glucose levels (amongst others).

Gut Microbiome: KCL are discovering that each person is very different and has their own unique microbiome. More research is needed to work out what constitutes a ‘healthy’ microbiome and which combinations of bacteria should try and be avoided. However they know that this bacterial community is very sensitive to changes in our diet and lifestyle. KCL want to test if the extreme environment changes, in this case altitude and sub zero temperatures, will impact the twins’ gut microbiota and if so how quick these changes can be observed and how long it takes for the microbiome to return to pre expedition levels.

Cortisol levels: They will measure the twins’ Cortisol (stress) levels when climbing in this extreme environment (high altitude and freezing temperatures). They assume the twin’s stress levels will increase during the expedition and that there is the potential that as one twin will be using old equipment and clothing and the other using new equipment, this may have different affects on their stress levels. By doing a daily saliva Cortisol test, GSKHPL and KCL will be able to track how their Cortisol levels change in response to the extreme environment and expedition. 

Daily fasting glucose levels: A daily skin prick test for fasting glucose could track when the twins’ have a bad or a good day. The reason behind testing the twins’ blood glucose levels is because their body’s should be naturally keeping your blood glucose within a very narrow range via two different metabolic hormones. There the catabolic hormones such as glucagon that increases your blood glucose level and an anabolic hormone (insulin) that decreases your blood glucose levels. In Greenland their glucose levels dropped well below the level at which you expect to go into hypoglycemic coma. The exposure to the extreme environment might affect how well their body’s can maintain the glucose level within this normal range.

Before, during and after the Greenland expedition the twins provided;

  • Blood for extraction of DNA and for genetic and epigenetic testing.
  • Blood for serum, plasma and urine for metabolites.
  • Stool samples for gut bacteria.
  • Blood for biochemical testing including fasting glucose, cholesterol.
  • Skin and fat biopsy from the abdomen.
  • Urine samples for protein.

Physical testing conducted alongside the collection of samples included;

  • Height and weight to calculate BMI.
  • Blood pressure.
  • Lung function.
  • DEXA scan to measure bone mineral density and muscle mass.
  • Cardiac tests.
  • Cold threshold pain tests.
  • Pulse oxygen levels.
  • Grip Strength.

The medical benefits are hoped to create better understanding and further develop medical knowledge specifically focused towards diseases such as osteoporosis, rheumatologic arthritis, diabetes and asthma. It also benefited Epigenetic, Gut-Flora and Metabolomics research projects.

These expeditions mean that KCL’s, Department of Twin Research will have a unique insight into how the environment is affecting health in ‘real time’ as they follow the twins’ health at each stage. By using the twins’ DNA profile with the clinical and questionnaire data, similarities and differences between identical (MZ) and non-identical (DZ) twin pairs can be compared to estimate the importance of genetic and environmental influences in a wide range of common conditions.