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Austin man part of Mayo Clinic team studying climbers on Mount Everest

Austin man part of Mayo Clinic team studying climbers on Mount Everest
Mayo Clinic research assistant Alex Kasak will spend two weeks on Mt. Everest base camp at 18,000 feet as part of a study on the effects of altitude on the human body.

Alex Kasak is leaving the worrying up to his mother.

The 2005 Austin High School graduate is leaving Monday for a month-long business trip — to Mount Everest .

"I think she's holding most of the fear for me," Kasak said, "so I'm not too nervous or scared. She's carrying that burden."

Probably just as well, since he has more than enough to worry about. A research assistant in integrative and environmental physiology for Mayo Clinic's division of cardiovascular diseases, Kasak has some work to do.

"The thing about physiology is, when we talk about the last frontier, about exploring what's left to be explored in the world, really, it's the human body," he said. "As much as we do know, we don't know so much more. We don't know why some people do well at altitude and some don't. We don't know why some get pulmonary edema and some don't."


So Kasak and five other members of his laboratory — including a cameraman to document the event — will seek some of those answers by scaling the equivalent of 29 Empire State Buildings while conducting experiments on each other.

Despite the exotic setting, Kasak emphasizes where the majority of the work is done.

"Ninety percent of what we do is in the lab," he said. "A common misconception is that (we're) running off and doing these awesome crazy things, but we've put hundreds of hours in the lab to get to go. We're still human-subject researchers by trade, and our main focus is heart failure and the associated lung conditions."

Their research on Mount Everest is threefold: sleep architecture, energy expenditure and heart rate variability. The hope is to someday incorporate their findings into the clinical setting to more effectively manage cardiovascular disease.

"The work we do in the lab associates very closely to what we do at altitude, and so do the changes in the body," he said. "When we look at someone with congestive heart failure, they're getting pulmonary edema, and that's exactly what we see, pretty much across the board, at altitude. Everybody gets some sort of fluid on the lungs, whether the severity is linked to how your lymph nodes can pull the fluid off the lungs and how efficiently you can do it, or whether your genetics play a role in how your lungs adapt to altitude."

Kasak is the youngest person in the collaboration, which includes researchers from The North Face, an outdoor product company, and National Geographic.

He'll celebrate his 25th birthday on Mount Everest.

"It's got some good shock value," Kasak said of the trip as a conversation starter, "but really, it doesn't matter where you come from or how big the town — that's just your jumping-off point. I'm going to see the world, and I live in Austin. It's where I've connected the rest of the dots from. You can't let where you come from define where you're going to go."

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