FDA Could Use Google Search Data To Find Drug Side Effects

The internet has become a useful tool for millions of people suffering abnormal health symptoms, and federal regulators are now turning to Google to help discovery and detect potentially dangerous drug side effects through search traffic. 

Last week, the FDA released the details of a June 9 meeting with Google researcher Evgeniy Gabrilovich, who specializes in data mining.

The meeting, “Google/FDA Adverse Event Trending Teleconference” suggests that the agency has turned to the search engine for help in discovering previously unknown drug interaction side effects, which are often only discovered once the medication has passed FDA approval and become widely used among consumers.

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The FDA is in discussions with Google to determine how the search engine’s technology and data may help identify safety signals or adverse events from the many searches conducted each day.

Gabrilovich, a former employee of Yahoo, co-authored a research paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The study was based on an analysis of 176 million yahoo searches in 2010. It revealed that search data can help find drug reactions that have not been discovered by the FDA using standard reporting methods.

The study focused on how searches using typical symptoms like cramps or weight gain, vary among those who also searched for the name of a specific medication.

Most drug interaction symptoms are found when a drug is in the research clinical trial stages, which focuses on a few thousand people. Once a drug goes to market, several million have access to the drug. Some of those patients may be taking other drugs that interact with the new drug or have other conditions that are affected by the new medication.

Side effects will often lead regulators to change drug safety warnings, prescribing practices, and in some instances cause the drug to be pulled from the market, such was the case with Vioxx.

The FDA process for tracking side effects includes voluntary reporting by patients, doctors and pharmaceutical companies who submit forms about possible reactions. This process has not changed since the late 1990s. The FDA gets more than 1 million reports of adverse drug reactions every year. However, it is widely accepted that adverse events only represent a small fraction of the total number of problems associated with prescription medications, as most adverse events are never reported.

Critics say the process is not only slow to detect drug reactions but it also misses many adverse events.

Other Internet Search Avenues Being Explored

Microsoft has been working informally with the FDA for several years on detecting drug side effects. Last month, the FDA announced a collaboration with PatientsLikeMe, an online patient network, to help identify ways to monitor the drug market and side effects.

Research published by Microsoft and Stanford in 2013 revealed web search data could have exposed the adverse interactions between Paxil and Pravastatin, a cholesterol drug, which cause hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, when taken together.

People who searched for both of these drugs over a 12 month period were more likely to search for terms related to hyperglycemia, such as diabetes or dry mouth. The research analyzed millions of searches on Google, Yahoo, and Bing before the interactions were reported the following year.

The FDA said the recent meeting with Google was an introduction into how the agency can begin to collaborate with Google and identify adverse event data.

Researchers hope to find a way to weed out the type of everyday medically related searches people make from the more serious searches which indicate drug interactions or side effects.

Google used data from 2009 and determined it could have caught an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico early if it had examined the information. Other proposals have shown how search engines can be used as a tool to track the spread of MRSA, the lethal drug resistant bacteria, by analyzing city-by-city search terms in real time.

The FDA reports there will be a follow-up meeting with Google in the future to continue the collaboration, as for now, the meeting was a first step toward how the two can work together.


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