Google to Search for the Meaning of Health

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Google intends to use its powerful algorithms and analytics in the service of a science project to unlock the mystery of what constitutes human health at the baseline level. That is, what is the state of a person's molecular chemistry long before what we recognize as disease kicks in? To achieve that knowledge, Google intends to study the biochemical makeup of volunteer subjects.

Google is seeking 175 volunteers from whom it will collect bodily samples in an effort to create their biochemical fingerprints and establish the baseline for a healthy body.

The Baseline study, to be run by Google X labs, will seek to connect traditional clinical observations of health, such as diet — or habits, such as smoking — with molecular-level changes.

"Our body's chemistry moves gradually along a continuum from a state of health to a state of disease, and we only have observable symptoms when we're already far along that continuum," states a memo Google prepared for the media, sent to TechNewsWorld by Google staffer Katelin Jabbari.

The idea is to note changes before symptoms appear and provide treatment. That "could change how diseases are detected, treated or even prevented," the memo says.

Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule

Recent developments — including new molecular measurement tools; the lower cost of advanced techniques such as DNA sequencing; and greater access to software algorithms and processing power to analyze huge datasets in search of new connections between data — have made the Baseline study possible.

The study is a pilot run by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad of Google X with a clinical partner. The pilot will help Google X develop its techniques.

Google X later will work with researchers at Duke and Stanford to refine its methods, with the goal of designing and conducting a larger, more definitive study.

The medical schools at Duke and Stanford Universities are consulting with Google X on the pilot.

Safeguarding the Data

Baseline will be monitored by institutional review boards.

"The IRBs will have to approve the study and ensure appropriate safeguards exist" to protect the research subjects' welfare and rights, Aish Vivekanandan, life sciences industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, told TechNewsWorld.

Data collected will be anonymized before being sent for analysis.

Data Privacy and Control Issues

"Google claims the data will be anonymous, [but] I think this is unrealistic," Kirstin Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, told TechNewsWorld.

"The more data you associate with genetic information, which is needed for the information to really be valuable, the more identifiable it will be," she explained.

Google "doesn't have a great privacy track record, and they should be very closely monitored as data is gathered," John Simpson, privacy advocate at Consumer Watchdog, told TechNewsWorld.

"Especially when dealing with Google, Ronald Reagan's adage 'trust but verify' should be remembered," Simpson continued. "I'd put the emphasis on 'verify.'"

Doing Good for Goodness' Sake

"This research is intended as a contribution to science," the Google memo intones. "It's not intended to generate a new product at Google." However, "a study like this could unlock lots of ideas for future projects, not just at Google but across the health and technology industries."

The study and its underlying results will be released to qualified health researchers for their use.

Google has been trying to crack the health industry for some time. It launched Google Health in 2008 but canceled it in 2011; last month, it announced Google Fit, an open platform, at Google I/O.

Queries, Doubts and Cavils

"I have seen many companies pursue the nonprofit road for a few years until they have sustainable data, whereupon they switch intentions to become for profit," Divyaa Ravishankar, life sciences senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, told TechNewsWorld.

The Baseline study "could be [analogous] to wearable technologies developed by Google's life science research group, where they are selling wearable devices to track health," she continued.

The definition of a "healthy person" also is called into question.

"My grandmother had chronic high blood pressure and had to take medication for most of her life, but lived to 102," the Baker Institute's Matthews said. "What are the metrics they are using to determine healthiness?"

Still, data gleaned from the Baseline study will form the basis for theories that will be tested on a larger scale, she observed, "which could ultimately add a lot of value to science and medicine."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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