Google X sets out to define healthy human

Google's researchers are planning a large study of human health.

Google's researchers are planning a large study of human health.

Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons

Google X, the secretive research arm of Google Inc., is making a major foray into clinical research with the goal of pinning down what it means to be healthy. The Mountain View, California, company revealed last week that it will launch a project, the Baseline Study, to follow thousands of people and identify patterns of biochemicals, proteins, genetic mutations, and other measurements that correlate with who remains well and who gets sick.

The project was first reported on 24 July by The Wall Street Journal, whose story described it as Google’s “most ambitious and difficult science project ever” and “a giant leap into the unknown.” It will “know the structure of thousands of people’s bodies—down to the molecules inside their cells,” raising “significant issues of privacy,” according to the article.

After a pilot study this summer with 175 people who are donating blood and saliva for testing, Google X expects to recruit thousands more volunteers in collaboration with medical schools at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Besides donating biological samples, participants may sport wearable medical devices, such as a glucose-sensing contact lens developed by Google X. Heading the project is Andrew Conrad, Google X’s life sciences chief, who developed cheap HIV tests for donated blood and was chief scientific officer of LabCorp, the giant clinical testing firm, before joining Google last year.

In some ways, the Baseline Study doesn’t sound that radical. Many groups are amassing DNA and biological samples from large groups of people, both healthy and diseased, and tracking their outcomes. It is also routine in such longitudinal health studies to gather detailed medical data from volunteers and keep their information anonymous, as Google X says it will do.

Google declined to make Conrad available for an interview that might clarify how its project differs from others, but collaborator Robert Califf, a Duke cardiologist, provided more details to ScienceInsider. Califf said the study hopes to recruit 10,000 volunteers over 2 to 3 years from Palo Alto and the communities of Durham and Kannapolis in North Carolina. Participants will be tested for their genome sequence, blood proteins, and biochemical or so-called metabolomic profiles; in some cases, these data may eventually be be combined with their electronic health records. Some participants will be healthy; others will have disease. The goal is to tease out new biomarkers that can detect diseases such as cancer and heart attacks earlier, according to Califf. Google X has “obviously got the computing power to do things on a bigger scale than other people,” he says.

The study may also find new correlations with physiological measures and better define what’s normal: For example, perhaps monitoring pulse 24 hours a day might reveal some new predictor of a heart attack, Califf says. “Integrating real-time physiology with the biology just hasn’t been done before. It’s too hard.”

Google X is funding the study for now, but there will be other contributors, says Califf, who declined to say what the costs will be. He expects the Baseline Study to run for 5 years “and then we’ll see,” he says.

The Kannapolis site for Google X’s project is especially intriguing. After the local textiles mill there closed down in 2003, throwing many townspeople out of work, Dole Food Co. chair and billionaire David Murdock built a new research center on the mill’s remains. One of its projects is now the MURDOCK study, which plans to enroll 50,000 local residents and follow their health much like the famed Framingham Heart Study. Conrad worked with Murdock to set up the research center while he was at LabCorp.

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