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Google X developing diagnosis pill

Published on 29/10/14 at 08:24am
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Google is developing a new pill designed to send microscopic particles into the bloodstream in an effort to identify cancers, imminent heart attacks, and other diseases.

Andrew Conrad, the head of life sciences inside the company’s Google X research lab, revealed the project at a conference in southern California this week.

Conrad says the pill will use nanoparticles that combine a magnetic material with antibodies or proteins that can attach to and detect other molecules inside the body.

The idea is that patients will swallow a pill that contains these particles, and after they enter the bloodstream will attempt to identify molecules that would indicate certain health problems.

He says a wearable device will then be used on their magnetic cores to gather them back together and read what they’ve found.

Conrad adds: “These little particles go out and mingle with the people, we call them back to one place, and we ask them: ‘Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium?’”

Known as the ‘Nanoparticle Platform,’ the project is part of a wider effort inside Google to develop new technologies capable of improving healthcare.

“Google X’s job is to take on big problems, to try to find clever solutions to big problems, and one of the problems we decided to tackle was healthcare,” Conrad says. “The way in which we envision doing this is inverting the paradigm in medicine – which is currently reactive and episodic – to a new paradigm that is proactive and cumulative.”

The wearable device that reads these particles could also be configured to send information via the internet and back to a doctor. The idea, Conrad explains, is that a patient or a doctor could monitor health in a more consistent way. “So, you get a more continuous monitoring, rather than episodic monitoring,” he says.

According to Conrad Google is actively looking for partners on its project, but details on when the technology might actually arrive to market were lacking – and it’s unclear how far along the company is in developing the technology.

Google health

Google recently bemoaned the tough regulations around the healthcare market and indicated it would not be proceeding forward in this area. But this seems to have been a momentary complaint given the spate of healthcare-based deals it has signed over the past 18 months, including most notably the creation of its healthcare business Calico.

Calico was established just over a year ago and is headed up by Art Levinson, the former chief executive and guiding force behind cancer biotech Genentech, which was bought by Roche in 2009.

In September Calico signed its first pharma pact with US firm AbbVie in a deal that could be worth up to $1.5 billion. It also has an ongoing financial commitment to public DNA testing firm 23andMe, that recently joined forces with Pfizer. 

Google announced in July that it would collect samples of human tissue from thousands of people, as part of an experiment that could help doctors to detect the earliest signs of cancer and other fatal diseases.

The firm’s so-called ‘Baseline Study’ will also take blood, urine, saliva and DNA samples to determine what makes up a healthy human being. And in the same month Google also revealed its pact with Swiss firm Novartis to develop a ‘smart’ contact lens designed to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels.

Vida health app

Even ex-employees are getting in on the act as this week a new start-up called Vida launched a new app that aims to help patients get healthy, reduce stress levels and lose weight through online ‘health coaches’.

Started by Stephanie Tilenius, a former Google and eBay executive, claims to help tackle chronic diseases, which account for more than three-quarters of US healthcare spending according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vida is also developing a database of clinical trials and disease prevention programmes for users. The start-up is now partnering with major US hospitals, like the MD Anderson Cancer Center and Duke University Hospital, which are using the app to deliver remote care to chronically ill patients.

Tilenius says the company is testing its product with employers, but declined to provide details as those pilots are ongoing.

Ben Adams 

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