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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.