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From Bloomberg Technology:

Patients may reveal early symptoms by looking on web for medical terms and treatment.

Microsoft Corp. researchers want to give patients and doctors a new tool in the quest to find cancers earlier: web searches.

Lung cancer can be detected a year prior to current methods of diagnosis in more than one-third of cases by analyzing a patient’s internet searches for symptoms and demographic data that put them at higher risk, according to research from Microsoft published Thursday in the journal JAMA Oncology. The study shows it’s possible to use search data to give patients or doctors enough reason to seek cancer screenings earlier, improving the prospects for treatment for lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.

To train their algorithms, researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz scanned anonymous queries in Bing, the company’s search engine. They took searchers who had asked Bing something that indicated a recent lung cancer diagnosis, such as questions about specific treatments or the phrase “I was just diagnosed with lung cancer.”

Then they went back over the user’s previous searches to see if there were other queries that might have indicated the possibility of cancer prior to diagnosis. They looked for searches such as those related to symptoms, including bronchitis, chest pain and blood in sputum. The researchers reviewed other risk factors such as gender, age, race and whether searchers lived in areas with high levels of asbestos and radon, both of which increase the risk of lung cancer. And they looked for indications the user was a smoker, such as people searching for smoking cessation products like Nicorette gum.

How effective this method can be depends on how many false positives — people who don’t end up having cancer but are told they may — you are willing to tolerate, the researchers said. More false positives also mean catching more cases early. With one false positive in 1,000, 39 percent of cases can be caught a year earlier, according to the study. Dropping to one false positive per 100,000 still could allow researchers to catch 3 percent of cases a year earlier, Horvitz said.  The company published similar research on pancreatic cancer in June.

Microsoft’s research arm is working on a variety of different technological approaches to improving cancer care and diagnosis. In September, the company published research on using machine learning algorithms to better tailor customized combinations of cancer drugs to a particular tumor and an effort to one day allow scientists to program cells to fight disease.

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