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June 15, 2016

Identifying early warning signs of cancer through search queries

Scientists working for Microsoft say they can in some cases identify internet users suffering from pancreatic cancer, even before they have received a diagnosis of the disease. How? By analyzing large samples of search engine queries.

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New York Times writes the scientists hope their work may eventually lead to early detection of cancer. The scientists published their on Tuesday in The Journal of Oncology Practice. Authors were Dr. Eric Horvitz and Dr. Ryen White (Microsoft researchers) and John Paparrizos – a Columbia University graduate student.

The researchers focused on searches conducted on Microsoft’s search engine Bing, that indicated someone had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then they worked backward, looking for earlier queries that could have shown that the Bing user was experiencing symptoms before the diagnosis. Those early searches, they believe, can be warning flags.

Five-year survival rates for pancreatic cancer are extremely low, but early detection of the disease can prolong life in a very small percentage of cases. Early screening can increase the five-year survival rate of pancreatic patients to 5 to 7 percent, from just 3 percent, according to the study.

The researchers reported that they could identify from 5 to 15 percent of pancreatic cases with false positive rates of as low as one in 100,000. They noted that false positives could lead to raised medical costs or create significant anxiety for people who later found out they were not sick. The data used by the researchers was anonymized, without identifying markers like a user name, so the individuals conducting the searches could not be contacted.

The researchers also looked at what to do with their search information. One possibility is a health service where users could allow their searches to be collected, allowing scientists to monitor for questions that indicate warning flag symptoms.

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