Researchers developed a computer programme that can efficiently search millions of tweets on Twitter for the names of many drugs and medicines and build a map of how they are connected, using the hashtags that link them.
"Our new algorithm is a great way to make discoveries that can be followed-up and tested by experts like clinical researchers and pharmacists," said Ahmed Abdeen Hamed, a computer scientist at the University of Vermont who led the creation of the new tool.
"We may not know what the interaction is, but with this approach we can quickly find clear evidence of drugs that are linked together via hashtags," Hamed said.
The new approach could also be used to generate public alerts, Hamed said, before a clinical investigation is started or before health care providers have received updates.
"It can tell us: we may be seeing a drug/drug interaction here. Beware," Hamed said.
Previous studies have shown that Twitter can be mined for bad drug interactions, but the Vermont team advances this idea by focusing on the distinctive information contained in hashtags - like "#overprescribed," "#kidneystoneprobs," and "#skinswelling" - to find new associations.
"Each individual hashtag functions almost like a neuron in the human brain, sending a specific signal," the scientists said, that can show a surprising pathway between two or more drugs.