The world’s largest search engine could soon help researchers and doctors track one of the deadliest diseases in human history, cancer.
A new study conducted by the University of California San Fransisco, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, has hinted how the search engine giant can soon be a powerful tool in cancer research.
According to them, Google search data across the United States could help researchers gather important information regarding cancer incidence and mortality.
Google’s data, according to the scientists can help gather data about cancer types that are rarely documented in national registries, including basal and squamous cell carcinomas, the two most common kinds of skin cancer.
The research has shown that search patterns and behaviours of the public can provide reliable estimates on populations searching specific topics. The scientists suspect that people that search cancer-related topics are highly probable to have cancer, will be diagnosed with it, or have relatives that are cancer patients.
“This public and easily obtained data could be a proxy for cancer registry data. It’s important to understand cancer trends in real time in order to identify areas that need more attention and to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention programs,” said Eleni Linos, a senior author of the study published June 28, 2017, in JAMA Dermatology. Linos is an associate professor of dermatology at UCSF.
The study was performed by comparing Google’s search volume data on the eight most common cancers in the United States with cancer incidences and mortality per state for the year 2009 to 2013. Researchers used the volume data on search queries containing the names, or common names of each cancer type.
The idea of using keywords is not a new idea. However, it was mostly used by marketing professionals to promote their products.
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Linos and her team found that the incidence five of the eight types of cancers significantly correlated with the states they are compared to. This included lymphoma, colon, melanoma, thyroid, and lung cancer. Mortality rates also correlated with four of those five cancer types, with thyroid cancer as the outlier.
Bladder, breast, and prostate cancers are among those that did not show enough correlation to their respective search volumes. The researchers suspect that this might be explained by the rigorous information campaigns that are being done by various health organizations.
“There’s a clear seasonal pattern for some cancer searches, influenced by public health campaigns like Breast Cancer Awareness month in October,” Linos said.
The idea of using Google to track various cancer diseases can help researchers gather data that would otherwise be impossible to collect. This is most true regarding nonmelanoma skin cancers, which is said to affect almost three million Americans every year but are hardly tracked by public registries.
The researchers believe that the concept can be applied not just in cancer-related diseases. “There are many diseases, like autoimmune, cardiovascular or infectious diseases, that we don’t collect registry data for,” Linos said. “Could online search data be used to estimate the burden of these diseases too? I think it’s exciting.”
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