Microsoft scientists have demonstrated that by analyzing large samples of search engine queries they may in some cases be able to identify internet users who are suffering from pancreatic cancer, even before they have received a diagnosis of the disease.
The scientists said they hoped their work could lead to early detection of cancer. Their study was published on Tuesday in The Journal of Oncology Practice by Dr. Eric Horvitz and Dr. Ryen White, the Microsoft researchers, and John Paparrizos, a Columbia University graduate student.
"We asked ourselves, 'If we heard the whispers of people online, would it provide strong evidence or a clue that something's going on?'" Dr. Horvitz said.
The researchers focused on searches conducted on Bing, Microsoft's search engine, that indicated someone had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. From there, 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.
While five-year survival rates for pancreatic cancer are extremely low, early detection of the disease can prolong life in a very small percentage of cases. The study suggests that early screening can increase the five-year survival rate of pancreatic patients to 5 to 7 percent, from just 3 percent.
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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. The researchers 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, meaning it did not carry identifying markers like a user name, so the individuals conducting the searches could not be contacted.
A logical next step would be to figure out what to do with that search information. One possibility would be some sort of health service where users could allow their searches to be collected, allowing scientists to monitor for questions that indicate warning flag symptoms.
"The question, 'What might we do? Might there be a Cortana for health some day?'" said Dr. Horvitz, in a reference to the company's speech-oriented online personal assistant software service.
Although the researchers declined to offer specific details, Dr. White is now the chief technology officer of health intelligence in a recently created Health & Wellness division at Microsoft.
They acknowledged that health-related data generated from web search histories was still new territory for the medical profession.
"I think the mainstream medical literature has been resistant to these kinds of studies and this kind of data," Dr. Horvitz said. "We're hoping that this stimulates quite a bit of interesting conversation."