Google Announces New Health-Focused X Labs Project

9-18-2013 10-03-06 PM

Google announces that the next project researchers within its X Labs division will work on will be another health-focused initiative called the Baseline Study. This time, Googlers will be teaming up with researchers from Duke University and Stanford University to aggregate the most comprehensive dataset ever constructed from a small population of health adults, with the goal of defining in great detail what exactly a health human body looks like, in an effort to shift research from treatment of late-stage diseases, to prevention at earlier stages.

"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems. That’s not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like." – Andrew Conrad, PhD, Baseline Study project lead.

The project is being led by renowned molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, a researcher whose earlier work changed the way that blood donations are screened for HIV. Conrad has assembled a team of 70 experts in biochemistry, physiology, molecular biology, optics and more.

Researcher is already underway. The team is working through a smaller pilot clinical trial to identify 175 initial participants that will donate a myriad of samples for further analysis. The participants will initially provide a medical history of themselves and their entire family, will undergo regular exams, and will submit urine, blood, saliva, and tear samples. Participants will also have their full genomes sequenced, and they will donate various tissue samples. Over the course of the data collection period, they will also wear Google’s continuous glucose monitoring contact lenses. Additional information, such as how their hearts react under stress and how their bodies metabolize food and process nutrients will also be measured. Once this pilot trial concludes, Google will work with Duke and Stanford to design a much larger study that will attempt to capture a complete data set on a larger population.

Once Google has the data it is seeking, it will unleash its data analytics engineers on the new datasets in search of previously unknown correlations between genetic mutations, proteins, enzymes, and the developmental cycle of diseases. Google will then work with Duke and Stanford to test and confirm possible new biomarkers as they are identified.

Despite Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s recent comment that healthcare is “so heavily regulated that it’s just a painful business to be in,” it seems that Google recognizes the strategic importance of carving out a place for itself within the $10.8 trillion global market.

Beyond the Baseline Project and Google’s new glucose-monitoring contact lenses, Google also recently announced Google Fit, a health data aggregation platform similar to Apple’s HealthKit project. Google also unveiled Calico last year, another moon shot initiative aimed at extending human life as long as possible through preventative medicine and the application of technology.

Sam Gambhir, MD and chair of the Stanford University Department of Radiology  cautions the public to temper excitement over the Baseline Study’s announcement, saying “We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We’ve learned to not say those things anymore,” and explaining of Conrad that “He gets that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years.” Conrad agrees with his colleague, reiterating that progress will come only in “little increments.”  

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