Earlier this month, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin expressed their reservations about entering the health-care industry, a space so heavily regulated “it’s just a painful business to be in,” Brin said at the time.
Less than three weeks later, Google has announced that it is entering the health sector in a major, groundbreaking way. In fact, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company has already begun collecting anonymous genetic information from 175 volunteers -- and eventually thousands more -- in an effort to create a model that represents what a perfectly healthy human being should look like, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Once the genetic data is collected, Google will use its immense computational power to analyze the information, identifying patterns (known as “biomarkers”) that will hopefully allow researchers to identify common killers such as diabetes or cancer far earlier, leading to more effective, prevention based treatment strategies.
For example, the project could potentially isolate a biomarker that helps individuals break down fatty foods optimally, the Journal reports. Those that lack such a trait and are at risk of developing heart disease could then be alerted before developing obvert symptoms, and make appropriate life-style changes.
The project, called the Baseline Study, is part of Google’s experimental ‘moonshoot’ division Google X and is headed up by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad who joined Google X in the spring of 2013. According to the Journal, Conrad has amassed a team of 70 to 100 experts, from medical fields including physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging, and molecular biology.
Because the human body is so complex Conrad warned the outlet that overnight cures are unlikely. Progress will instead come in “little increments.”
The Baseline Study’s goal – to computationally crunch a large set of genetic data in order to isolate and identify biomarkers – is similar to genetic profiling startup 23andMe’s mission, at least according to the company’s co-founder (and Brin’s estranged wife) Anne Wojcicki. Before the Food and Drug Administration shut it down last fall, 23andMe collected the genetic information of over 650,000 individuals, from which it hoped to extrapolate connections, insights and, ultimately, cures for common diseases.
“The rest of your life is optimized because of Big Data,” Wojcicki told New York Magazine. “But it isn’t for health care, and that’s fundamentally the most important thing for you.”
The Baseline Study’s data will be far more complete than 23andMe’s data, however. While Wojcicki’s startup gleaned all its genetic information from mail-in spit tests (which the FDA claimed often produced inaccurate results, the main reason the agency shut the company down) Conrad and his team will collect volunteers’ bodily fluids (urine, blood, saliva, tears), their entire genomes, their parents’ genetic history, as well as information about how they metabolize substances such as food and drugs, and their heart rate when stressed.
In addition, volunteers will probably wear Google’s smart contact lenses that measure glucose levels, Conrad told the Journal.
Like many projects that emerge from Google, Baseline Study offers groundbreaking possibilities while simultaneously raising substantial privacy concerns. While Google has already stipulated that all data collected from participants will be kept anonymous (and will never be sold to insurers) it’s hard not to feel a little nauseous at the thought of a public company, with a spotty track record for respecting privacy policies, storing the detailed genetic makeup of thousands of individuals.
Then again, if Google has its way, perhaps nausea, like privacy, will become a thing of the past.
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