Only 3% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive for five years. Microsoft researchers, however, say that rate could be doubled with early detection—and the Internet may play a vital role. The researchers, together with a Columbia grad student, found searches on Microsoft's search engine Bing that suggested a user had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, reports the New York Times. They then examined earlier searches by the same user to see if there had been warning signs, like cancer-related symptoms. After using the frequency and order of symptoms to determine if a user was curious or actually suffering from an ailment, per Neowin, the researchers identified 5% to 15% of pancreatic cancer cases with "extremely low false-positive rates" of one in 10,000 and one in 100,000, per the Journal of Oncology Practice.
"We found that signals about patterns of queries in search logs can predict the future appearance of queries that are highly suggestive of a diagnosis," the researchers say, adding early screening could boost the number of pancreatic patients who survive for five years to 5% to 7%. "I think the mainstream medical literature has been resistant to these kinds of studies and this kind of data," adds study author Dr. Eric Horvitz. "We're hoping that this stimulates quite a bit of interesting conversation." The data could be used to build an online health service analyzing symptoms—perhaps "a Cortana for health," says Horvitz, though he notes false positives would raise medical costs and take a toll on some patients. Microsoft previously used search queries to discover unreported side effects of prescription drugs before the FDA, per the Times.