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Feasibility of using online search data to detect malignancy confirmed by first-of-its-kind study

Online search data could be used to detect ovarian and endometrial cancer cases earlier, a new study led by researchers from Imperial suggests.

Published in the journal BMC Public Health, the study analysed anonymised Google search data from 235 people in the 24 months before a GP referral and found that search data appeared to differ between those with malignant and benign gynaecological conditions.

Results showed that many people who ended up being diagnosed with malignant gynaecological conditions experienced gastrointestinal and pain symptoms up to a year before receiving a GP referral.

Urinary and bleeding symptoms were found to present 140 days before referral, and at 70 days before referral bloating, vagina/pelvis symptoms and menopause became more prevalent. This symptom pattern was not seen within the benign group, the researchers noted.

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The study is the first clinical pilot to show the feasibility of using search histories as a disease detection tool, specifically, though not limited to gynaecological cancer.

Senior author and chief investigator for the study Dr Srdjan Saso, gynaecological cancer surgeon at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, 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… 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.’

The researchers also called for systemic delays in referral pathways to be addressed in order to make earlier diagnoses of gynaecological cancers.

The study was published just over a month after NHS England announced the launch of a national testing programme for the BRCA genes, which are associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer.