Picture this: Your doctor prescribes a new medication, but once you start taking it, you begin to feel a little off. While the smart thing to do is call the doctor or pharmacist, the more common action today is to hop on the Web and see if you can figure out what's going on.
As it turns out, that self-diagnosing and hypochondriac-like behavior could help save people's lives.
Researchers at Microsoft Research Labs, in conjunction with Stanford University, have found that Web searches can help the FDA and pharmaceutical companies discover previously unknown dangerous drug interactions. And the FDA is welcoming the help.
"We are currently monitoring research in this area and are also engaged in an exploratory pilot project to assess the value of user-generated digital data for post-market safety assessment of certain FDA regulated products including drugs, devices, biologics, vaccines and dietary supplements," said FDA spokeswoman Andrea Fischer. "We are excited about the possibilities of using this type of data to improve or speed detection of significant issues."
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In 2011, Dr. Russ Altman, chairman of the Stanford bioengineering department, led a project that found patients taking paroxetine (an antidepressant, better known by its brand name Paxil) and pravastatin (a cholesterol-lowering drug marketed as Pravachol) could develop hyperglycemia. Later, as he was sharing a milkshake with his former classmate Dr. Eric Horvitz, a distinguished scientist and managing co-director at Microsoft Research, for assistance and discussing the findings, the two theorized that the reaction could have been spotted much earlier.
"We thought 'We wonder if you can go to the Web?'" said Horvitz. "With a certain methodology, we can see who is searching for side effects like fatigue, slow healing of sores and blurry vision. ... We did an analysis that would show if you're interested in both drugs, you 're more likely to search with a curiosity about symptoms of hyperglycemia than if you're taking just one of those drugs."