Google’s healthcare ambitions keep growing with Insel hiring

Google’s future research directions are often signposted by high-profile appointments and the hiring of a leading neuroscientist Dr Thomas Insel indicates mental health is firmly on its agenda.

Dr Thomas Insel

Insel is stepping down from his current role as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and will join Google spin-out Alphabet – the recently-formed umbrella company which includes its healthcare operations – in November.

He has held the position of NIMH director for 13 years – having previously served as professor of psychiatry at Emory University – and said in a blog post that he is leaving the institute “at a high point” and is “working out the final details for a move to the life sciences team at Google.”

The mission at Google Life Sciences (GLS) “is about creating technology that can help with earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions,” according to Insel. “I am joining the team to explore how this mission can be applied to mental illness.”

Google’s policy of enticing top people to spearhead operations outside its core data activities has already served it in good stead, with the company recruiting former Genentech chief executive Arthur Levinson to lead its Calico pharma unit and digital health specialist Leerom Segal, formerly CEO of Klick Health, amongst others.

In the last couple of years the technology giant has unveiled a string of healthcare innovations, including a contact lens that can monitor blood sugar levels in tears – due to start trials at Novartis next year – along with a wearable device to measure pulse, heart rhythm and skin temperature and medical applications for its Google Glass headset.

“That the life sciences team at Google would establish a major exploration into mental health is by itself a significant statement,” said Insel, who said it recognised “the burden of illness from psychosis, mood disorders, and autism as well as the opportunity for technology to make a major impact to change the world for the millions affected.”

Insel has been replaced as director of the NMH on an interim basis by Dr Bruce Cuthbert while a national search for a permanent replacement gets underway, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Dr Francis Collins.

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