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Alphabet to Track 10,000 Volunteers For 'Map of Human Health'

by Christina Farr / / Source: CNBC.com
The logos of multinational technology company Google in Vertou, France.LOIC VENANCE / AFP - Getty Images

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Verily, formerly Google's life sciences arm, is launching a four-year study called Project Baseline to find out why people transition from being generally healthy to getting sick.

The Silicon Valley-based company is working with its partners, Duke University and Stanford Medicine, to enroll 10,000 participants from diverse backgrounds at half a dozen study sites in California and North Carolina.

 People stand under a sign at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, on Jan. 5, 2010. Robert Galbraith / AFP - Getty Images Pool, file

The researchers are recruiting some people in good health, and others who are at high risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and outfitting them with sophisticated health trackers and sequencing their genomes, among other things.

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The goal for the study, said Verily's chief medical officer Jessica Mega, is to "create a map of human health."

As Mega explained, most doctors will treat symptoms as they arise, but have little indication into how the patient was faring in the years leading up to the illness. The Baseline researchers are hoping to find early warning signs for disease from all the data it is collecting, including on sleep, activity, heart rate, genomics and more, which might translate into new lifestyle or therapeutic interventions.

That could eventually mean big business for Verily, a company in the Alphabet umbrella, which is already working with pharmaceutical companies ranging from Johnson & Johnson to Novartis, on a variety of life sciences initiatives.

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"With the exploding number of wearable trackers, we're gathering all these digital vital signs," says Daniel Kraft, faculty chair for the Medicine and Exponential Medicine program at Singularity University, and a practicing physician. "We don't know what to do with all this data yet."

According to Kraft, Verily is building a "Google Maps for health care," as it is connecting the dots in a similar fashion that the various mapping applications compiled street data, traffic, nearby restaurants, and so on.

Part of Verily's role is to use its engineering talent to develop sensor-based technologies to capture a huge volume of health data.

"With the exploding number of wearable trackers, we're gathering all these digital vital signs."

"With the exploding number of wearable trackers, we're gathering all these digital vital signs."

To that end, it recently developed its own smartwatch, called Study Watch, which participants will be asked to wear on a daily basis. The watch, which is not intended for consumers, includes features like an electrocardiagram, which might indicate abnormal heart rhythms, plus week-long battery life and large internal storage.

Each participant will also get their whole genome sequenced, which costs several thousand dollars. The researchers are also aiming to study other molecular indicators, like the microbiome and proteomics (meaning the analysis of sets of proteins). This fields are still extremely nascent, and it remains to be seen whether such tests will benefit healthy people.

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These results will be returned to patients over the course of the study, said Adrian Hernandez, professor of medicine at Duke and a lead investigator for Baseline, especially if they require medical care. But Hernandez said it will be "at least five years" before the insights gleaned from the study are useful to the general population.

The Baseline Project is modeling itself on prior efforts, like the Framingham Heart Study, which kicked off in the late 1940s with more than 5,000 participants. The results of that study showed the importance of regular exercise and a healthy diet in maintaining good health, as well as the deleterious effects of smoking.

The new tools and datasets Verily is developing might prove attractive to the broader research community. Both Mega and Hernandez said they are already getting interest from outside researchers about the Study Watch.

If it builds such tools for researchers, that would be in line with the plan outlined by Verily CEO Andy Conrad: A "Google for medical information."

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