redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Having already waded knee-deep into the world of driverless cars, optical head-mounted displays and other wearable technology, Google is reportedly poised to tackle its biggest challenge yet – a perfectly healthy human body.
According to Alistair Barr of The Wall Street Journal, the Mountain View, California-based firm’s Baseline Study project will collect anonymous genetic and molecular information from 175 men and women in the hopes that it can allow experts to develop a detailed map of what the physiology of a healthy human being should look like.
Fifty-year-old molecular biologist Dr. Andrew Conrad, who helped develop inexpensive high-volume tests for HIV in blood-plasma donations, will be in charge of the early stages of the project, Barr said. Dr. Conrad joined the company’s Google X research branch in March 2013, and since then he has recruited between 70 and 100 physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology experts to work alongside him.
As Fast Company’s Chris Gayomali explained, Google is not the only company to launch a mass molecular-level or genomic study, as the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 and began to successfully sequence the human genetic code in 2003. However, Google is said to be one of the few companies on Earth with the resources and capabilities to conduct an in-depth study of the body’s proteins and enzymes.
“The hope is that this will help researchers detect killers such as heart disease and cancer far earlier, pushing medicine more toward prevention rather than the treatment of illness,” Barr said. “The project won’t be restricted to specific diseases, and it will collect hundreds of different samples using a wide variety of new diagnostic tools. Then Google will use its massive computing power to find patterns, or ‘biomarkers,’ buried in the information.”
“The hope is that these biomarkers can be used by medical researchers to detect any disease a lot earlier,” he added. “The study may, for instance, reveal a biomarker that helps some people break down fatty foods efficiently, helping them live a long time without high cholesterol and heart disease. Others may lack this trait and succumb to early heart attacks. Once Baseline has identified the biomarker, researchers could check if other people lack it and help them modify their behavior or develop a new treatment to help them break down fatty foods better.”
Earlier this month, it was announced that Google had licensed its smart contact lens technology to pharmaceutical giant Novartis, who plans to use it to develop lenses capable of helping diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels. The device, which consists of a wireless chip and miniaturized sensor embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, would essentially provide 24-7 glucose monitoring by testing the tears of the person wearing them.
Google unveiled a prototype version of the lens earlier this year. At the time, it was capable of testing tears once per second, and was investigating the use of LED lights that could serve as an alternate early-warning system. Furthermore, Novartis officials said they believe the “smart lens” technology could be adapted to help people suffering from presbyopia, an age-related condition that robs the eye’s ability to focus naturally.
The Baseline Study is an even more ambitious project – one which Barr says will rely upon the company’s massive network of computers and data centers to store and analyze medical information and make it easier for researchers to access. Most biomarkers discovered to date are associated with late-stage diseases, since studies typically focus on ill patients, and efforts to use them to detect ailments earlier have met with mixed success.
Dr. Conrad told The Wall Street Journal that he expects progress to be made in “little increments,” and his Baseline colleague Dr. Sam Gambhir, who also chairs the Stanford University Medical School’s Department of Radiology, said that Dr. Conrad understands “that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years. We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We’ve learned to not say those things anymore.”
Google has promised that the information collected for the Baseline Study will be anonymous, and that it will be used solely for medical and health-related purposes, Barr said – no information will be shared with insurance companies. However, he added that the fact that the company “would know the structure of thousands of people’s bodies – down to the molecules inside their cells – raises significant issues of privacy and fairness.”
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