Online search data could help detect earlier cases of gynaecological cancer

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Search engine data could be used to detect gynaecological cancer cases earlier, potentially months ahead of GP referrals, according to new research.

A study, led by Imperial researchers and colleagues from UCL’s Department of Computer Science and Microsoft, has identified differences in online search data between people with a benign gynaecological condition and those with a gynaecological cancer, particularly those with ovarian cancer. The study is published in BMC Public Health.

This work was supported by the Imperial Health Charity (IHC) including Laura B Ellis- an NIHR Imperial BRC co-funded fellow from the IHC.

Ovarian cancer, the most lethal gynaecological cancer, is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, with around 7,400 people diagnosed each year and more than 4,000 deaths each year from the disease. There is currently no screening programme in place for early disease detection.

Using Google data, the researchers noted a difference in search patterns as early as 360 days in advance of a GP referral and found that this provided a good prediction accuracy at around 60 days in advance of a GP referral.

Different symptom patterns were also noted between the benign and cancer groups. For example, a spike in urinary symptoms was noted 140 days in advance of GP referral, whereas bloating and pelvic pain symptoms appeared to present later (70 days in advance), compared to the benign group.

It is hoped that larger studies could confirm whether search engine data can be used as an early disease detection tool to help speed up diagnoses for gynaecological cancer, particularly ovarian cancer.

Dr Srdjan Saso, senior author and chief investigator for the study, and gynaecological cancer surgeon from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, said: “Ovarian cancer is one of the most lethal cancers for women, with advanced stage carrying a poor prognosis, despite potential extensive surgery. The focus, therefore, remains on facilitating early disease detection. However, we do not have a screening programme in place to enable this.

“Our research, in collaboration with computer scientists from UCL and Microsoft led by Professor Ingemar Cox and Dr Elad Yom-Tov respectively, has shown that online search data may be used to differentiate between women with malignant and benign gynaecological conditions. This suggests that it may be possible to build early detection tools using the internet which can identify women who may be at a higher risk of, in particular, ovarian cancers.

“We are hoping to raise funding in the near future to develop a multi-centre study which can confirm these findings in a much larger cohort.”

Great potential for disease screening

previous study led by Imperial researchers showed that loyalty card data could be used to identify ovarian cancer cases earlier. However, this new study uses data from internet search engines which are used by a much larger proportion of the population (both in the UK and globally).

Dr Jennifer F Barcroft, lead author for the study, from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, said: “Our results show that it is possible to use search engine data to understand how conditions present, and that this may have use in early disease detection, given we have highlighted different symptom patterns between those with benign conditions and gynaecological cancers.

“As nearly 98 per cent of people in the UK have access to the internet, it is increasingly being used for health purposes. Online search data offers enormous potential within health and disease screening, given the widespread use of the internet worldwide. We hope that our research will drive interest in this novel area of research.”

Professor Ingemar Cox, senior author for the study from UCL Computer Science, said: “Our current paper significantly expands on earlier work by incorporating a clinical study that confirms that an individual’s risk of some diseases can be determined based on their Web search behaviour. Web searches may therefore offer a simple, inexpensive method for disease screening. Of course, this does raise important ethical and privacy concerns, which need to be resolved.”

Informed written consent was obtained from participants in the study to use online search data from Google Takeout files. This data was then anonymised.