Google Search Queries as Pharmacovigilance

A new paper on the Internet “pharmacovigilance” explored how users taking multiple drugs cold be used to determine unreported side effects, by analyzing search queries. From the abstract:

Adverse drug events cause substantial morbidity and mortality and are often discovered after a drug comes to market. We hypothesized that Internet users may provide early clues about adverse drug events via their online information-seeking. We conducted a large-scale study of Web search log data gathered during 2010. We pay particular attention to the specific drug pairing of paroxetine and pravastatin, whose interaction was reported to cause hyperglycemiaafter the time period of the online logs used in the analysis. We also examine sets of drug pairs known to be associated with hyperglycemia and those not associated with hyperglycemia. We find that anonymized signals on drug interactions can be mined from search logs. Compared to analyses of other sources such as electronic health records (EHR), logs are inexpensive to collect and mine. The results demonstrate that logs of the search activities of populations of computer users can contribute to drug safety surveillance.

The New York Times summarizes:

They determined that people who searched for both drugs during the 12-month period were significantly more likely to search for terms related to hyperglycemia than were those who searched for just one of the drugs. (About 10 percent, compared with 5 percent and 4 percent for just one drug.)

They also found that people who did the searches for symptoms relating to both drugs were likely to do the searches in a short time period: 30 percent did the search on the same day, 40 percent during the same week and 50 percent during the same month.

Interesting.

On Browsing Books

Claire Barliant reflects on the art of browsing books, and finding what you didn’t know what you were looking for in a book next to the one you were searching for:

Along with embossed hardcovers or tattered paperbacks, the “book beside the book” will soon seem quaint. You know the feeling: searching for something specific and stumbling on another book you’ve been curious about, then finding yourself, almost involuntarily, leaning against a wall or sinking onto a footstool, happily giving up the next half hour of your life. I’m sure some people think of browsing as an invitation to distraction, but I like to think of it an intellectual stroll. Some paths lead to meaningless cul-de-sacs, others to revelations. The tactile process of pulling out a stack of books and flipping through them is, to me, more stimulating than toggling between the windows open on my Web browser. Even the nomenclature “browser” is worth noting: it removes our agency. The software does the browsing. Not us. Browsing is fundamentally an act of independence, of chasing your own idiosyncratic whims rather than clicking on Facebook links or the books recommended by some greedy algorithm.

In the end, where she wonders “where will we randomly stumble on the knowledge we didn’t even know we wanted to know?” my answer to her is: Reddit.

The Science of Fat

This is a fascinating article in Outside Magazine on fat and muscle.

Not everything about fat is bad, of course. Fat tissue under the skin, known as subcutaneous fat—the kind that makes young people look succulent and ripe—is essentially padding that protects the body from injury, and it also helps fight infection and heal wounds. “Sub-q” fat produces an important hormone called adiponectin, which appears to help control metabolism and protect against certain cancers, notably breast cancer.

The bad news is that, as we age, we gradually lose this good fat, which is one reason why our hands get bonier. Instead, men and women alike tend to build up blobby fat on our midsections. Over the past decade or so, Kirkland and other scientists have discovered that this so-called visceral fat infiltrates our vital organs, bathing them in a nasty chemical stew that wreaks havoc in the body. Visceral fat produces an array of cell-signaling proteins called cytokines, including interleukin-6 (IL-6), which causes chronic inflammation, and TNF-alpha, for tumor necrosis factor, which has been linked to cancer.

Kirkland and other researchers have come to believe that, in addition to the problems associated with diabetes and heart disease, fat may actually help accelerate the aging process. In a 2008 experiment, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University surgically removed abdominal fat from obese lab rats and found that the rodents lived significantly longer than their chubby cousins. In a more recent study, not yet published, the Einstein team found that surgical fat removal prevented some colorectal cancers in mice that were genetically predisposed to those tumors.

I had no idea there was such a system in place in the human body:

One newly discovered myokine even tries to convert fat itself into an energy-consuming system like muscle. In 2012, a Harvard-based team identified a hormone called irisin, secreted during exercise, that tricks plain, blobby, “white” fat—and even deep visceral fat—into acting like “brown” fat, a far less common form that is dense with mitochondria and burns energy just like muscle does. Bruce Spiegelman, the Harvard scientist who led the team that discovered irisin, is now looking for a drug compound that might trigger its release.

Worth reading in entirety.

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(via Paul Kedrosky)

Future Plans for Mars Travel

The Economist summarizes current plans for missions to Mars:

Six decades later, on February 27th, Dennis Tito, an American investment manager and space enthusiast who, in 2001, became the world’s first space tourist, unveiled his own plan. Inspiration Mars is a more modest affair. If all goes to plan, in January 2018 a single, small spaceship, carrying two crew members, will blast off for a 501-day trip to Mars and back. If it arrives safely, there are no plans to land. Instead, the idea is merely to fly around the planet and then head back to Earth. Unlike von Braun’s project, little government involvement will be necessary. Mr Tito hopes to pay for Inspiration Mars with a mix of his own money, donations from the public and the sale of media rights.

That is not to say that Mr Tito’s plan is timid. On the contrary: it is eye-wateringly (or, as one colleague puts it, “bowel-looseningly”) bold. Although endless studies have been done on how it might be possible to ferry humans to Mars, no one has ever attempted it. Mr Tito’s launch date is fixed, for it is designed to take advantage of a rare period of orbital proximity between Mars and Earth. If he misses his deadline, another opportunity will not present itself until 2031. That gives the team just under five years to design the mission, specify a spacecraft, find a rocket to launch it on, select a crew and carry out all the necessary checks and double-checks. And, without the financial muscle of a nation-state behind him, all this must be done on a budget.

Also:

And other non-profit foundations are interested, such as Mars One, a Dutch group that has been advertising for volunteers for a one-way trip, whose crew would end up stranded on Mars, although it has nevertheless received plenty of applicants.

All this interest implies that sending people to Mars is merely a matter of political will and a bit of ingenious engineering. It is not. It is extremely difficult and dangerous, a fact that Mr Tito mentioned repeatedly in his press conference.

So dangerous, in fact, that The Economist initially called the Mars One “a suicide mission.” They’ve since issued a correction in the piece.

Andrew Mason’s Honest Letter to his Employees

Andrew Mason was fired as CEO of Groupon yesterday. He penned one of the most humble/honest letters to his employees. There’s no PR shilling here:

People of Groupon,

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.

You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.

For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.

If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!

I will miss you terribly.

Love,

Andrew

Wonderful.

Andrew, if you’re reading: get in touch with me about losing those 40 pounds. I did it last year and have kept the weight off.