Google thinks big with nanotechnology health ‘moonshot’

Google can never be faulted for thinking too small, but its latest healthcare project – a pill that diagnoses disease in its earliest stages – is particularly ambitious.

The technology giant has just started talking about the project – currently being pursued at its Google X research division – and says the intention is to develop magnetic nanoparticles laden with antibodies or other detecting molecules primed to seek out disease markers.

After patrolling around the body for a while, the particles could be recalled using a wearable, magnetic device – worn on the superficial veins of the wrist for example – that would gather the reconnaissance results and relay the information.

Clearly the idea is still years away from becoming a practical diagnostic option, but project leader Andrew Conrad – head of life sciences at Google X – told the Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference this week that partners are already being sought to help take it forward.

Googles ‘nanoparticle platform’ is working at “the nexus between biology and engineering”, said Conrad, who likened current diagnostics to trying to understand Parisian culture by “flying a helicopter over the city once a year. Using the nanoparticles is like having agents on the ground mingling with the people, he added.

There will clearly be significant hurdles to overcome bringing such a technology to market, not least regulatory minefield posed by systemic administration of such as a device and potentially issues related to patient confidentiality and security.

The nanoparticles are effectively at the front end of a wider Google X project to bring data mining technologies to healthcare.

The division has already started work on another project called ‘Baseline’ which is trying to generate comprehensive molecular and genetic profiles of people – starting with an initial group of 175 with more expected to be recruited later – that will try to define once and for all what being ‘healthy’ means.

The diagnostic nanoparticles and other projects such as the smart contact lens for monitoring glucose levels in diabetics unveiled by Google earlier this year, now licensed to Novartis, are examples of how technology could be applied to manage deviations from that health ‘norm’.

Meanwhile, Google is also hoping to square the circle by developing its therapies that can correct those deviations via is biotechnology arm Calico, which was set up last year to focus on the challenge of ageing and associated disease and recently partnered with AbbVie.

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