Google has embarked on a vast project to establish the molecular profile of a human body in perfect health. The project will also provide an opportunity for the data search specialist to substantially enrich its database.

Google Launches Massive Scientific Study to Detect Illness Biomarkers

Enabling people to live longer: this is the latest aim of Google’s two co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and in late July the company unveiled a wide-ranging initiative towards achieving this goal. In partnership with Stanford University and Duke University in the United States, the Mountain View giant is launching a massive scientific study called ‘Baseline’, whose purpose is to collect molecular information so as to build a portrait of a human being in perfect health. The idea is that scientists will be able to use this baseline ‘biochemical blueprint’ to obtain an early warning of illnesses such as cancer before the first symptoms appear. They also hope to be able to prevent other health conditions, such as heart attacks. This method is different from the current approach to research, which generally focuses on people who are already ill. The study will not be limited to tracking any single disease, and the idea is that the results will be applicable across a wide medical field.

Contributing to science

A first phase of the project will take place this summer, involving just 175 volunteers, in order to establish a procedural framework before the study is subsequently widened to several thousand people. The research teams will gather a maximum amount of data from the test subjects. They will first take fluid samples – blood, saliva, tears and urine – and then sequence each person’s genome, tracing the genetic history of the subject’s parents. They will also record information on the way each subject’s metabolism reacts to certain foods and medicines. Study volunteers will wear sensors measuring their heartbeat and oxygen levels. They will probably also wear the prototype ‘connected’ contact lenses that are currently being developed in the laboratory of Google’s research arm, Google X. Google has promised that all recorded data will be kept anonymous. Moreover, the data search company claims that the study is intended first and foremost to “contribute to science”, and insists there is no intention to deliver a specific commercial product or service.

Human database

The project is to be run along the same lines as Calico (Californian Life Company) which launched in September last year with a budget of several hundred million dollars. This Google subsidiary, whose CEO is Art Levinson, the chairman of biotechnology corporation Genentech, focuses entirely on using big data technology to drive research into the processes of ageing and means to combat those processes. Meanwhile Google has taken a number of other initiatives in the health field. On the hardware side, the company is developing a range of sensors, complementing its well-known ‘connected’ lenses, which are able to measure glucose levels in diabetics. On the software front, the company is preparing to launch the Google Fit platform, which will enable smartphone owners to collect sports activity and health data. Connected watches/wristbands are also in the pipeline. Skip Snow, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, believes that although Google is not revealing its intentions, its current investments could easily be monetised. “Many firms such as insurance companies would be prepared to pay to gain access to the human database that Google is setting out to create,” he points out.

By Jérôme Marin