Database clean-up may reduce side effects

Adverse drug reactions kill 100,000 patients in the United States each year, but a crowd-sourced database offers a new way to predict and avoid these reactions.

New treatments are tested in clinical trials before they are licensed for use in patients, but until the drugs are available for prescribing it’s not always possible to identify every side effect. When the drugs enter the clinic, they might be prescribed to patients with multiple medical conditions, or combined with other treatments. The drugs may also be taken for longer periods of time than tested in trials. It is therefore common for new adverse reactions to emerge after a drug is in widespread use.

The FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) is a surveillance system used in the United States for reporting drug side effects after new treatments have been licensed. Healthcare professionals and patients can submit reports to the database, logging the adverse drug reactions that they have experienced.

FAERS currently contains over 8.5 million entries, and is growing all the time. However, Mateusz Maciejewski and colleagues show that the database has several shortcomings that are reducing its usefulness. For instance, on average any given drug will have 16 different names in the system; this makes it challenging to group all of the reported side effects so that trends and patterns can be correctly seen.

To address this first problem, Maciejewski and colleagues grouped together drugs according to their active ingredients, rather than their name. This made it much easier to account for subsequent, and more crucial conflating factors such as multiple reports for the same adverse event and patient, or cases where adverse reactions were confused with the diseases that the drugs are trying to treat. For example, diabetes was listed as a side effect for drugs used to treat diabetes.

Building on this cleaned-up dataset, Maciejewski and colleagues monitored how adverse event signals evolve over time and uncovered biases that were hard to see otherwise. For example, side effects were reported more often when drugs were in the news. More strikingly, this bias affected not only the drug in question, but also other drugs that acted in the same way or on the same molecular target.

The computational method developed by Maciejewski et al. allows the data in FAERS to be combined and corrected, making easier to evaluate the safety of different medicines. The link between adverse side effects and the molecular targets of the drug, via the ingredient’s chemical structure, furthermore makes it possible to analyze such clinical data reliably by using chemical and genetic information. In the future, this method could also help to identify previously unknown side effects and the biological mechanisms behind them. This could help researchers to develop new drugs with improved side effect profiles.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: Reverse translation of adverse event reports paves the way for de-risking preclinical off-targets (August 8, 2017).
Read a commentary on this research paper: “Adverse Drug Reactions: The benefits of data mining”
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