The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked for Google’s help in identifying previously unknown side effects of medications.
Last month, in a conference call, FDA officials spoke with a senior Google researcher who co-authored a 2013 paper about using search query data to identify adverse drug reactions, Bloomberg Business reports. The agency has also worked informally with Microsoft researchers for several years on detecting drug side effects.
Google scientist Evgeniy Gabrilovich, a senior staff research scientist specializing in data mining, was on the call. Gabrivilovich, who formerly worked for Yahoo, was co-author of a paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research based on 176 million Yahoo queries in 2010. Garbrilovich and co-author Elad Yom-Tov demonstrated that search data can help find drug reactions “that have so far eluded discovery by the existing mechanisms.” They analyzed how searches for such common symptoms as “cramps,” “weight gain,” or “tired” differed among people who also searched for the name of a medication, according to Bloomberg Business. Symptoms that appear shortly after a treatment starts are likely to be known side effects reported to the FDA, but search data revealed reactions that “appear much later . . . hence their association to the drug is often overlooked.”
Evidence of negative side effects can lead to changes in a drug’s safety warnings or prescribing practices, but the FDA has difficulty gathering such information once a drug reaches the market. The FDA’s process for tracking adverse events (which involves patients, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies voluntarily submitting forms that describe reactions) has changed little since the late 1990s. Before a drug receives FDA approval, it is generally given only to carefully selected patients enrolled in clinical trials, which usually amounts to a few thousand people, Bloomberg Business reports. Once a drug reaches the market, thousands or even millions of people may take it and some of them will likely be taking additional medications that may interact or they may have conditions that the drug affects. In rare cases, safety concerns can result in a medicine being pulled from the market, as was the case with the painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib).
The FDA receives more than a million reports of adverse drug reactions each year, but critics say the system probably misses many adverse events and can be slow to detect safety problems, according to Bloomberg Business. The FDA is looking for new sources of information and new ways to monitor the safety of drugs on the market. The FDA has entered a collaboration with the online patient network PatientsLikeMe. Last year, an FDA researcher co-authored a paper about monitoring drug safety on Twitter. Eric Horvitz, distinguished scientist and managing director at Microsoft’s research arm, says Microsoft researchers have been working on the problem for several years. In 2013, Horvitz and colleagues published a paper that found web search data could have exposed the adverse interaction between the antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil) and cholesterol-lowering drug Pravastatin, which together can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). People who searched for both of those drugs over a 12-month period were also more likely to search for terms related to high blood sugar, such as diabetes and dry mouth. The paper appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.