[Ip-health] NYT, Markoff - "Unreported Side Effects of Drugs Found Using Internet Data, Study Finds" (Mar. 6, 2013)
james.love at cptech.org
Wed Mar 6 11:21:12 PST 2013
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From: DAVID J. FARBER <farber at gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 1:48 PM
Subject: [IP] NYT, Markoff - "Unreported Side Effects of Drugs Found
Using Internet Data, Study Finds" (Mar. 6, 2013)
The New York Times
March 6, 2013
Unreported Side Effects of Drugs Found Using Internet Data, Study Finds
By JOHN MARKOFF
Using data drawn from queries entered into Google, Microsoft and Yahoo
search engines, scientists at Microsoft, Stanford and Columbia
University have for the first time been able to detect evidence of
unreported prescription drug side effects before they were found by
the Food and Drug Administration's warning system.
Using automated software tools to examine queries by 6 million
Internet users taken from Web search logs in 2010, the researchers
looked for searches relating to an antidepressant, paroxetine, and a
cholestorol lowering drug, pravastatin. They were able to find
evidence that the combination of the two drugs caused high blood
The study, which was reported in the Journal of the American Medical
Informatics Association on Wednesday, is based on data-mining
techniques similar to those employed by services like Google Flu
Trends, which has been used to give early warning of the prevalence of
Currently, the F.D.A. asks physicians to report side effects through a
system known as the Adverse Event Reporting System. But its scope is
limited by the fact that
data is generated only when a physician notices something and takes
the initiative to report it.
The new approach is a refinement of work done by the laboratory of
Russ B. Altman, the chairman of the Stanford bioengineering
department. The group had previously explored whether it was possible
to automate the process of discovering “drug-drug” interactions by
using software to hunt through the data found in F.D.A. reports.
The group reported in May 2011 that it was able to detect the
interaction between paroxetine and pravastatin in this way. Its
research determined that the patient’s risk of developing
hyperglycemia was increased compared with taking either drug
The new study was undertaken after Dr. Altman wondered whether there
was a more immediate and more accurate way to gain access to data
similar to what the F.D.A. had accesscould get.
With the aid of Microsoft researchers, he was able to acquire
anonymized data taken from a software toolbar installed in Web
browsers by users who allowed their search histories to be collected.
The Microsoft researchers were able to look at 82 million searches for
drug, symptom and condition information.
The researchers first identified individual searches for the terms
paroxetine and pravastatin, as well as searches for both terms, in
2010. They then computed the likelihood that users in each group would
also search for hyperglycemia as well as roughly 80 of its symptoms —
words or phrases like “high blood sugar,” “blurry vision,” “frequent
urination” or “dehydration.”
They were able to determine that people who searched for both drugs
during the 12-month period were significantly more likely to search
for terms related to hyperglycemia, compared with those who searched
for just one of the drugs. (Approximately 10 percent, compared with 5
percent and 4 percent for just one drug.)
They were also able to determine that people who did the searches for
symptoms relating to both drugs were likely to do the searches in a
short time period: 30 percent did the search on the same day, 40
percent during the same week and 50 percent during the same month.
“You can imagine how this kind of combination would be very, very hard
to study given all the different drug pairs or combinations that are
out there,” said Eric Horvitz, a managing co-director of Microsoft
Research’s laboratory in Redmond, Wash.
The researchers said they were surprised by the strength of the
“signal” that they were able to detect in the millions of Web searches
and argued that it would be a valuable tool for the F.D.A. to add to
its current system for tracking adverse effects.
“There is a potential public health benefit in listening to such
signals,” they wrote in the paper, “and integrated them with other
sources of information."
In an interview, the researchers said that they were now thinking
about how to add new sources of information, like behavioral data and
information from social media sources. The challenge, they noted, was
to integrate new sources of data while protecting individual privacy.
Currently the F.D.A. has financed the Sentinel Initiative, an effort
begun in 2008 to
assess the risks of drugs already on the market. Eventually, that
project plans to
monitor drug use by as many as 100 million people in the United
States. The system will be based on information collected by health
care providers on a massive scale.
“If you have a well-instrumented population of 100 million Americans,
than it can become trivial to test our predictions,” Dr. Altman said.
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