The FDA primarily relies on physicians and patients to enter suspected adverse events into a database of voluntary reports that have nearly doubled over the last five years and totaled around 800,000 in 2010, the latest figure available from the agency. It can take multiple cases before someone at the agency detects a pattern worth investigating. Then it conducts an investigation to determine whether the drug caused the side effects.
The research team believes using social media would ideally help bring issues to light faster than that.
Speedier discovery of adverse drug reactions could have both pros and cons, according to people who keep close track of the pharmaceutical industry.
"The use of social media is just one way that may improve a company's ability to learn how patients are actually reacting to medicines," said Jeff Francer, assistant general counsel for the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "We're always looking for better ways to ensure medicines are being used in a safe manner."
While knowing about drug side effects sooner could help pharmaceutical companies pull a drug or make changes to stave off side-effect related lawsuits that have cost the industry billions, analyst Steve Brozak of WBB Securities noted that knowledge could make a company liable sooner too.
Since the Internet is teeming with spam aimed at exploiting medical fears, selling unregulated remedies or promoting illegal online pharmaceutical sales, Abbasi said researchers will weed out fake medical websites with a fraudulent website detection system co-developed by members of the team. They will use other analytic tools to further filter the information. The results will be reviewed by independent pharmaceutical experts in partnership with medical professors at WVU's medical and pharmacy schools.
Dr. Jerry Avorn, an expert in pharmaceutical safety at Harvard Medical School, called the project intriguing, but added that "... before we take that as gospel, I think we need to understand to what extent those reports might be either exaggerated or distorted."
He suggested that "crowdsourcing" research on something as subjective as drug effects may not yield the most reliable results.
Instead, Avorn pointed to the FDA's Sentinel program, which, at the first hint of trouble, allows the agency to probe medical record databases covering tens of millions of patients to track the safety of drugs and medical devices once they're on the market.
Consumers are still encouraged to report drug reactions to the FDA because its database is currently the official way of tracking those issues, said agency spokeswoman Sandy Walsh.