Google wants to know how the human body works

A "smart" contact lens developed by Google to monitor glucose levels in tears. Photo courtesy of Google.
A “smart” contact lens developed by Google to monitor glucose levels in tears. Photo courtesy of Google.

Google is exploring the human body, hoping to develop a definition for a “healthy” person by cells and molecules.

This ambitious project, which the company claims “has never been done before” and known as the Baseline Study, is being led by the Google X secret laboratory, Google said in a statement Thursday.

The study is now in its pilot phase as researchers enroll 175 anonymous healthy individuals over the course of the summer. Study participants will go through exams similar to what they would receive from a primary care physician, including the collection of body fluids like urine, blood and saliva.

“It may sound counter-intuitive, but by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease,” said Andrew Conrad, molecular biologist who is leading the study at Google X. “This research could give us clues about how the human body stays healthy or becomes sick, which could in turn unlock insights into how diseases could be better detected or treated.”

This is not the first time Google has stepped into the health market. The company has also been developing a smart contact lens that can help monitor glucose levels in tears and automatically adjust their focus for diabetic patients.

But the Baseline Study is is more extensive and potentially intrusive, particularly since it includes collecting participants’ genetic and molecular information. The company says it will use its enormous computing power to find patterns, or “biomarkers” buried in the information, potentially pushing medicine more toward prevention rather than treatment.

For example, if researchers find a generic “biomarker” in people who break down fatty foods efficiently, researchers could check if other people lack such biomarker and help them modify their lifestyle to reduce the risk of having high cholesterol and heart disease, Conrad told the WSJ.

Google said Baseline is intended as a contribution to science and is “ not intended to generate a new product at Google,” unlike other Google X products including the Glass wearable and driver-less cars. The company plans to make the study and research data available to qualified researchers in health-care fields, which is a fast-growing industry estimated to create 5.6 million new jobs by 202, according to a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce.

There are also privacy concerns regarding how Google will use the data, including the entire genomes of the study participants and even their parents’ genetic history, which could be invaluable to insurance company who are always trying to reduce their business risks. Conrad told the Wall Street Journal that Baseline will be monitored by institutional review boards through the entire process. Medical schools at Duke University and Stanford University will control the use of information once the study is fully launched.

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