How do drugs interact with supplements? Supp.AI search engine tracks down clues

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s Supp.AI search engine combs through research focusing on interactions involving nutritional supplements as well as drugs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s Supp.AI search engine combs through research focusing on interactions involving nutritional supplements as well as drugs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Physicians and regulators keep close tabs on how different drugs interact. But what about interactions involving dietary supplements?

“There’s just no way for anybody to keep up with the combinations of supplements and drugs,” said Deborah Rappaport, vice president of product at InHealth Medical Services. “It’s a huge number.”

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, is harnessing the power of its Semantic Scholar academic search engine to make the job easier. Today it unveiled Supp.AI, a searchable database that indexes 4,650 supplements and drugs from Abbokinase to Zytiga, and serves up research findings on more than 56,000 interactions involving those products.

The Food and Drug Administration ensures that drug labels include information about how the effect of a given medication might be affected by taking other drugs. Pharmacists and physicians keep up to date on drug-vs.-drug interactions as well.

It’s a different story for dietary supplements. Statistics suggest more than 170 million Americans take supplements, ranging from garden-variety vitamins to exotic herbal concoctions — but the FDA isn’t authorized to review such products for safety or effectiveness before they’re sold.

“There’s not really as much oversight over the market,” said AI2 researcher Lucy Lu Wang. “The ingredients in these supplements may have pharmacological effects. Sometimes they can interact both poorly and sometimes positively with normal prescription or over-the-counter drugs.”

When you type the names of listed drugs or supplements into Supp.AI, the search engine displays links to studies that address those potential interactions.

Wang emphasized that Supp.AI won’t give medical advice. Instead, it simply points you to publicly available research.

“We really think of this app as a way to start a conversation with a health provider,” she said.

Rappaport said that’s how she expects InHealth to use Supp.AI. She said the company’s network of trained health coaches could click through the app if patients call up and tell them they’re taking dietary supplements.

“It’s a way that our health coaches could figure out if the patient should be referred back to the doctor, or if it’s really not a big deal,” Rappaport said.

Because the information is coming from studies written for an academic audience, it can be a bit tricky to interpret what the research actually says. For example, if you do a search for ginger plus vitamin C or vitamin E, you come across a study on rats that found “the reversal of gastric emptying was more pronounced” when all three compounds were taken together.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You have to click through to the study to figure out that it’s a good thing: The combination improves the chances of easing abdominal discomfort and bloating.

Wang said Supp.AI’s verdict on a given interaction isn’t always a clear thumbs-up or thumbs-down. “The evidence often can be mixed for these interactions,” she said.

She also acknowledged that there are other online resources available for tracking down interactions involving supplements.

“What we found is, most of them don’t have great coverage,” Wang said. For example, WebMD’s Drug Interaction Checker didn’t pick up on the ginger-plus-vitamin study.

Wang said one key to Supp.AI’s long-term success is that it’ll never go out of date. “The site receives regular updates” to keep up with the latest research, she said.

Another key is that it’s free — in accordance with the open-science vision of AI2’s late founder, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

“There are currently no plans to commercialize this product,” Wang said. “I think one of the greatest benefits of this tool is that it is freely available for everyone to use.”

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