AdverseEvents: Why Big Pharma Is Scared Of This Startup

By taking lists of potential side effects out of the hands of the drug makers, the startup is letting people know what their pills might be doing to them in a more open way than big pharmaceutical companies ever have.

Last week during a Republican debate, as you may have heard, Michele Bachmann claimed that the HPV vaccine Gardasil can cause mental retardation. Prozac and other antidepressants are often linked to suicide. Ambien is rumored to cause amnesia in some patients. Which of these things are true? And how could we ever really know since the list of side effects that comes with medication never gives detailed statistics?

AdverseEvents, a California-based startup, is pushing the debate out into the open with a centralized database of how many side effects are happening from what drugs and what the patient outcomes are—and according to cofounder Brian Overstreet, "it scares the crap out of the pharmaceutical companies."

"The FDA has some of this [side effect] data, but it's unstructured, not searchable, and not standardized," explains Overstreet. AdverseEvent's proprietary algorithm, which took 18 months to build, takes into account data from the FDA, direct patient reporting, and even information from social media sites (AdverseEvents analysts are alerted to side effect discussions on patient discussion boards, for example, and try to extract data).

AdverseEvents also has an internal alert system, so that the company can track potentially dangerous side effects and alert the FDA if necessary.

The result: a clean, easy-to-read database for both health-care professionals and patients. Pictured above is the Prozac top 10 side effect list—and sure enough, suicide is on there. But Gardasil? Mental retardation isn't on the list, though the most common side effect is "drug exposure during pregnancy."

Pharmaceutical companies are, as you might imagine, not thrilled that AdverseEvents exists; they're used to controlling side effect information. "First they freak out about it, then they look in greater depth and say 'Wow, it's really interesting and we could see how to use this but we're not ready.' And we explain that the data is coming—your customers are going to have it, insurance companies and doctors are going to have it, and you need to be part of the conversation," says Overstreet. Fast Company contacted Pfizer for comment, but we have not yet heard back.

AdverseEvents went live this month. It's free for patients, but the startup has a subscription based model for insurance companies, hospitals, and eventually pharmaceutical companies. AdverseEvents is also working on a mobile app.

"I think people are going to be horrified," says Overstreet. "That's the only reason I'm doing this—because it scares me a lot."

[Image: Flickr user selva]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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3 Comments

  • Greg Singh

    Interesting concept and good to
    see that this debate is being taken into the open. In the UK’s #MHRA its own
    agency is also opening up its side-effects reporting: http://bit.ly/nnFcTW. It’s
    understandable that pharma companies will be initially taken aback, but this
    concept of aggregating side effects into one centralized database should be the
    first step of acknowledging that their customers are more informed than ever
    before. Hopefully, it will also help break down those fear barriers that have
    held pharma companies back from participating in social conversations (http://www.visibletechnologies.... What will be most intriguing is to
    see if this type of resource has longevity and will spur similar pharma
    services. Looking forward to the developments, especially the mobile app.

  • Paul Wittenberg

    First off, it was widely commented on in the press that Michele Bachmann's claim that HPV vaccine Gardasil can cause mental retardation had no research that backed it up.  It was a story that needed to be checked prior to being repeated.

    While insurance companies, health professionals and patients may all be ready for this, as you pointed out, the drug companies are not ready.  They have been hesitant to jump into social media, and understandably.  The regulations regarding the use of social media by drug companies has been slow to come, and unclear.  So, while the drug companies may be trailing the pack, the FDA may be even further behind.

  • Greg Singh

    Interesting concept and good to
    see that this debate is being taken into the open. In the UK’s #MHRA its own
    agency is also opening up its side-effects reporting: http://bit.ly/nnFcTW. It’s
    understandable that pharma companies will be initially taken aback, but this
    concept of aggregating side effects into one centralized database should be the
    first step of acknowledging that their customers are more informed than ever
    before. Hopefully, it will also help break down those fear barriers that have
    held pharma companies back from participating in social conversations http://bit.ly/o3DXVy. What will be most intriguing is to
    see if this type of resource has longevity and will spur similar pharma
    services. Looking forward to the developments, especially the mobile app.

    Greg Singh
    Visible Technologies