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Can Google Predict Drug Side Effects?

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Drugs, when taken in combination, can cause severe side effects. (Image credit: <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/?cr=00&pl=edit-00">Shutterstock.com</a>)

Most drugs have side effects, especially when used in combination with other medications. But when millions of people are prescribed a drug, and thousands of them use it in combination with dozens of other drugs, can anyone keep track of all the potential side effects?

Perhaps Google can.

That's the result of one study, which used queries from Google, Bing and other search engines to track the adverse reactions that people experienced when they used two popular drugs: the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine) and Pravachol (pravastatin), a statin that lowers cholesterol.

The researchers followed about 6 million Internet-using volunteers who agreed to have their search queries tracked. Among those users who searched for information on both Paxil and Pravachol, about 10 percent also entered search terms that were related to hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, according to Time.com.

Could this drug combination cause hyperglycemia? It hadn't been previously reported in drug studies, according to Wired, but that's not surprising, since many of the drug trials that occur before the Food and Drug Administration approves a drug are short-term studies involving just a few hundred volunteers.

After combing through drug reports that were sent in to the FDA, the researchers confirmed that a combination of Paxil and Pravachol was indeed associated with hyperglycemia.

People taking a drug often go online for information or to chat about their side effects. "They're just reporting on their symptoms, which is just a normal thing that humans love to do," Nicholas Tatonetti, co-author of the report, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, told Wired.

This isn't the first time that anonymous online searches have been mined for health trends and information. By tracking the number of searches people enter for terms like "fever," "influenza" or "flu," Google Flu Trends can track the outbreak of flu on a state-by-state, or a city-by-city, basis.

Biomedical informatics is a relatively new field and its full potential has yet to be tapped, researcher Hojjat Salmasian of Columbia University, who was not involved in the study, told Wired. "We don’t know how much potential it has. But based on the results that have been published so far in this study and other similar studies, it seems like this is a very important field to explore."

Email Marc Lallanilla or follow him @MarcLallanilla. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Marc Lallanilla
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.