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Microsoft Scientists Find Possible Cancer Clues in Search Queries

By Melissa Gutierrez
Posted On Jun 08, 2016
Microsoft Scientists Find Possible Cancer Clues in Search Queries

Microsoft Corporation is no novice in the innovation wheel. From its inception in 1975 and forever more pioneering the technology forefront, to its most current project that may revolutionize the health field, Microsoft, indubitably, is a leader in innovation.

Physicians, nurses, and all health practitioners alike, hold onto your stethoscopes because what is coming next may rock your white coats and scrubs.

The ingenious scientists at Microsoft 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 been diagnosed with the disease.

This groundbreaking study was published on Tuesday in The Journal of Oncology Practice by Dr. Eric Horvitz and Dr. Ryen White, both Microsoft researchers, and John Papparrizos, a Columbia University graduate student.

The study focuses on searches conducted through Microsoft’s search engine, Bing. From there, the researchers worked backwards, looking for earlier queries that could have demonstrated the Internet user was searching for answers for possible symptoms they may have been experiencing; these early searches can be the warning flags of a possible health ailment. The data used by the researchers was completely anonymous, not containing any identifying markers of the users.

Both a computer scientist and a medical doctor by training, Dr. Horvitz was propelled to explore this area in part because of a life-altering experience. Based on a phone conversation with his good friend who had described symptoms, Dr. Horvitz advised his friend to seek medical attention. Sadly, his friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died several months later.

Pancreatic cancer often has a poor prognosis. While five-year survival rates for pancreatic cancer are very low, early detection can increase the five-year survival rate from 3 percent to 5 to 7 percent.

Microsoft has recently created a Health & Wellness division, with Dr. White as the chief technology officer. Admittedly, both Dr. White and Dr. Horvitz acknowledge that health-related data generated from web search histories is still a new territory for the medical field. Moreover, the new research is based on the ability of this department to accurately distinguish between Internet searches that are causal and those that are prompted by genuine concerns for symptoms.

Currently, the Microsoft team is exploring evidence related to a range of devastating diseases in the hopes that symptom alert data might be made available as part of a broader online health service that a company like Microsoft might offer.