Friday, April 11, 2008

Using Semantic Search to Cure Disease, Prevent Animal Testing

One of the big trends in 2008 has been the emergence of what I call Semantic Apps - a kind of 'Web 2.0 Meets Semantic Web' app typified by startups like Twine, Hakia, Quintura, Powerset and others. Another growing trend is health 2.0, web-based health apps and services. What's interesting is that those two trends are crossing over, with semantic health search engines beginning to make an impact.

Two such apps to cross our desk lately were 1) CureHunter, which claims to be able to find cures for diseases using semantic technologies; and 2) Go3R, an app that claims to provide information transparency "for the prevention of animal testing".

Health is an area where Semantic technologies can be put to great
use, due to the overwhelming amount of data in the healthcare industry
and the fact that it's largely inaccessible to the general public
(despite most of it being our data).

CureHunter - Can it Really Cure Diseases?

CureHunter is an example of
the new semantically-charged health search engines popping up. As the
name suggests, it is a web service that aims to find cures for
diseases. Judge Schonfeld is the CEO and Chief Scientist of CureHunter
and he described it to us in an email as a "Medical Data Mining engine
system that uses an intelligent semantic processor linked to a network graph theory module to read the scientific literature (entire NLM archive 1949-2008 >) and compute new cures
for human diseases completely autonomously." That's a mouthful, but
I've highlighted the key points: it uses semantic processing, network
graphs and most interestingly claims to "compute new cures"

The following graphic (excerpted) illustrates CureHunter's approach.
Essentially it tries to analyse health research data and compute cures:

Click here for full image, with extra detail

CureHunter is pretty complex, but I did some tests for diabetes type
1 to see if I could find a "cure". The results were overwhelming, in an
'info overload' kind of way:

It outlined some interesting "cures", but much of the information
was not something patients would understand. It seems like a great
resource for doctors and physicians though. So to answer the question
in the subheader, can CureHunter really cure
diseases? Probably only if you're a doctor or physician who knows how
to interpret the wealth of data that CureHunter serves up.

Go3R - Prevents or Amplifies Animal Testing?

The idea of having a health database that includes animal testing
results isn't something most people would find very appealing. However Go3R, developed in four months by a company from Germany called Transinsight, claims to be a "knowledge-based search engine for alternative methods to animal experiments."
(emphasis ours) The site aims to enable scientists to "take advantage
of the benefits of semantic searches for the area of alternative
methods in accordance with the 3Rs principle [Replacement, Reduction
and Refinement]." Transinsight is already known in the web 2.0 world
for GoPubMed, a health search engine that AltSearchEngines has covered before.

You could view Go3R in two ways. The first is the version
Transinsight pushes in its press release: that this app makes it easier
to find alternatives to animal testing. However the second point of
view is that this is a big database that includes animal experiment
results, and so it might be seen to amplify the practice of animal
testing. For example I searched for "diabetes" and the number 2 result
was a test on rats:

Whether you see this as further exploitation of animal testing, or
(as Transinsight says) an app that will "lead to a significant
reduction of animal experiments", it is an interesting use of semantic


Health search engines are nothing new - indeed both Google and
Microsoft have made important announcements in this domain over the
past year. In October 2007 Microsoft unveiled HealthVault, a consumer health and search site. In February this year Google announced a pilot program of their health records application called Google Health. A week later, Microsoft acquired Medstory - a vertical search engine for health information. There is also a lot of interest among startups - see our report from the Health 2.0 Conference in March and another report from a healthcare panel at SXSW later that month. Also our network blog AltSearchEngines continuously covers health search engines.

But I'm liking this latest trend for semantically-powered health
search engines. If ever there was a compelling need for Semantic Apps
to help users make sense of and organize data, it's in health.
CureHunter and Go3R are two apps to look out for.

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