Google mapped the world's streets and developed self-driving cars to roam them. Now, the company wants to map something much larger: perfect human health.
Google Baseline, announced last week, will collect molecular and genetic information from an initial 175 volunteers and later thousands more. The philosophy is to focus on the genetics of health itself, rather than focus on disease.
Health research experts agree that Google brings a fresh perspective and technological expertise to the complex world of genetics. But they aren't sold on all facets of Google's approach.
"We want to understand what it means to be healthy, down to the molecular and cellular level," Google said in a press release. Google repeated the phrase "what it means to be healthy" a few times -- and that's what worries one expert.
"My immediate question is, what does Google mean by that? Healthy for a six-year-old boy, or a 75-year-old woman? You're injecting values about the range of humanity, right off the bat," said Arthur Caplan, the director of the division of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center and an NBC News contributor.
Google isn't purporting to develop a model of the singular perfect human. The goal is to analyze participants' data from to uncover "biomarkers," or patterns, that can be used to detect disease earlier.
"It's a perfectly reasonable approach, but I wouldn't do it under the 'what it means to be healthy' mission statement," Caplan said. "Those are fighting words. The mother of a child with Down's syndrome may consider her child perfectly healthy."
What's more, genetics alone doesn't provide a full picture of health or of disease, pointed out Kedar Mate, M.D., the vice president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a Massachusetts-based not-for-profit.
"Genes are about 15 to 40 percent, behavioral patterns 30 to 40, socioeconomic factors 20 to 30, etc.," Mate told NBC News. "So even a wonderful genetic model is not a total picture of health."
What makes Baseline different, Google argues, is that it will "try to connect traditional clinical observations of health" like diet and other habits with genetic information.
But while Google (nor anyone) can't create the full model of perfect health, the company still brings two major advantages to the field: technological power and an outsider perspective.
"Anyone can collect 175 DNA samples," Caplan said. "But Google is a very, very powerful computational company. That's what makes it exciting."
Google's trove of technology resources and know-how could create a faster, smarter process for analyzing the links between genes and disease.
But not everyone in the field considers Google's computational power a major boost. Some genomics experts scoffed online at Google's assertion that Baseline is a "clinical research study that has never been done before."
"Frankly, anything Google does gets attention," Mate said.
"What would make it really different is Google's knowledge of so much of our behavior," he added. "If Google could take all of that and combine it with genetic information -- no other organization can offer us that."
But given what little we know about Baseline, it doesn't sound like Google is planning to do that -- at least not now. It's not clear they could, even if they wanted to.
Google declined to comment to NBC News on that point, or on the Baseline project overall. But the company told the Wall Street Journal, that use of data will be limited to medical and health purposes -- and won't be shared with insurance companies, for example.
Whether Google would -- or even could -- move to combine health data with the rest of the information it knows about our behavior, Mate insisted the nature of Google's business adds a unique element to the pursuit of health.
"You wonder if they’ll bring a fresh and different perspective, because this isn’t a stodgy academic project," Mate said. "The entry of a player like Google has the ability to stimulate the space -- and break it out of the way things have always been done."
First published August 3 2014, 8:58 AM