Photographer: Getty Images

Photographer: Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration is talking to Google about how the search engine could help the agency identify previously unknown side effects of medications.

Agency officials held a conference call on June 9 with a senior Google researcher who co-wrote a 2013 paper about using search query data to identify adverse drug reactions, according to a record of the meeting posted to the FDA website that has not been previously reported. Microsoft researchers also say they have been working informally with the agency for several years on detecting drug side effects.

FDA spokesman Chris Kelly called the meeting an introduction and a chance “for the agency to begin a discussion on how we might collaborate with Google on identifying adverse event data, using Google’s technologies and data.”

The government’s process for tracking so-called adverse events (which involves patients, doctors and pharmaceutical companies submitting forms that describe possible reactions) has not changed much since the late 1990s. The FDA now gets more than a million reports of adverse drug reactions a year. Although the agency has tried to make the data easier to access, critics say the system probably misses many adverse events and can be slow to detect safety problems.

Microsoft’s researchers have been working on the problem for several years and have co-authored a paper with FDA colleagues, says Eric Horvitz, distinguished scientist and managing director at Microsoft’s research arm.

Horvitz, along with other researchers from Microsoft and Stanford University, published a 2013 paper finding that Web search data could have exposed the adverse interaction between the antidepressant Paroxetine (Paxil) and cholesterol-lowering drug Pravastatin, which together can cause hyperglycemia, or 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, according to the paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. 

Google scientist Gabrilovich’s paper 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. While serious symptoms that appeared shortly after treatment started were likely to be known side effects reported to the FDA, the researchers found that search data were more likely to reveal reactions that “appear much later after the beginning of treatment, hence their association to the drug is often overlooked.”

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