Drugs undergo rigorous experimentation and clinical trials to gain regulatory approval, while dietary supplements get less scrutiny. Even when a drug study reveals an interaction with supplements, the discovery tends to receive little attention. Consequently, information about interactions between drugs and supplements — and between various supplements — is relatively obscure. A new model brings it to light.

What’s new: Lucy Lu Wang and collaborators at the Allen Institute created supp.ai, a website that scans medical research for information about such interplay. Users can enter a supplement name to find documented interactions.
Key insight: Language describing drug interactions is similar to that describing interactions involving supplements, so an approach that spots drug interactions should work for supplements.

How it works: The researchers modified an earlier model that finds drug-to-drug interactions in medical literature to support supplements.

  • The authors compiled a list of supplements and drugs in the TRC Natural Medicines database of 1,400 supplements and the Unified Medical Language System’s database of 2 million medical terms and their relationships.
  • They used a sentence extraction tool to search abstracts of publications indexed by the Medline database for sentences containing references to multiple supplements.
  • They fine-tuned a BERT language model on the Merged-PDDI archive of documents describing drug-to-drug interactions.
  • Based on patterns in that archive, the model predicted whether a sentence describes drug-to-drug, supplement-to-drug, or supplement-to-supplement interactions.

Results: Among 22 million abstracts, the system classified 1.1 million sentences describing interactions. To assess accuracy, the authors hand-labeled 400 sentences that contained references to supplements. On this subset, the system was 87 percent accurate in identifying supplement interactions, compared with 92 percent for drug interactions, the state of the art in that task.

Why it matters: Most U.S. adults use a dietary supplement, yet their interactions with drugs or one another are virtually unknown. Supp.ai makes it easy for anyone with a web browser to look them up.

We’re thinking: The researchers took advantage of the similarity between text discussing drug and supplement interactions to adapt a drug-oriented model for an entirely different, less-scrutinized class of remedies — a clever approach to a difficult problem.


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