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A coalition force member stands on top of a hill watching a snow-covered mountain range in Kabul province, Afghanistan, March 1, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Freire) Credit: Sgt. Matthew Freire , Courtesy of Sgt. Matthew Freire/Creative Commons

According to two old roommates, lung cancer has a direct correlation to where a person lives. 

Kamen Simeonov, currently a first-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine, partnered with Daniel Himmelstein at the University of California in San Francisco to study how geography affects cancer, finding that cancer rates are lower in places with higher elevation.

“I started thinking about this sophomore year of high school, and senior year I started thinking about what data was available,” Simeonov said.

Because the entire experiment was unfunded, Simeonov and Himmelstein took advantage of free government data, comparing cancer rates and elevations in many U.S. counties. To make the correlation as accurate as possible, they took into account variables including smoking, obesity and pollution rates in the areas studied. Even after the statistical adjustment, there was still less cancer in places with higher elevation, specifically lung cancer.

Simeonov met Himmelstein through an old roommate, and ultimately the two became roommates and great friends.

“I really wanted to do this. And he saw what was going on, and he really wanted to do it. So we decided to take a year and just do it,” Simeonov said.

Although Simeonov and Himmelstein are both going their separate ways, Simeonov intends to pursue this phenomenon in the future.

“In a few years, I’d like to explore this further in a molecular way. What we did now was an epidemiological study, with human data. But in a lab, we can control things perfectly using animal models. What we’ve shown is that cancer correlated perfectly to elevation. It would be nice to prove that it is actually due to oxygen," Simeonov explained.

Thus far, this discovery has already been deemed significant. The correlation between humans and geography has been previously observed, but not as perfectly, as there needs to be controls for everything.

This study also emphasizes the importance of freely accessible and available data.

“Five or six years ago," Simeneov said, "the data we used was not as public and was not collected with such precision as it is now."

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