How Google’s latest moonshot could change human health

We know Google as a search company, and now as an email and social media company. But it sees itself as much more, and nowhere is that more evident than its secretive Google X laboratory. Its team there tackles “moonshots,” which can mean anything from delivery drones to glucose-monitoring contact lenses.

Monday saw the announcement of yet another unexpected project: health diagnostics. Google X has been working on nanoparticles that, after consumed, stream through the human body and pick up on signs of waning health — cancer cells, for example. The nanoparticles then congregate at a band worn on the wrist to report their findings.

It’s a bold goal that could suddenly move expensive, time-consuming and difficult tests from a hospital to anyone’s pocket. How exactly can Google, of all companies, do that?

What are nanoparticles? Are they really OK to eat?

Nanoparticles are what they sound like: teeny-tiny particles. They can take many forms, but Google starts with an iron oxide core, Google X lead Andrew Conrad told Medium. Iron oxide is magnetic, which means that magnets in the wristband can draw the nanoparticles together at the wearer’s wrist whenever it is time to record their findings. Google then coats the iron oxide cores with different materials depending on the application they are meant to pursue; one nanoparticle might seek out sodium, while another detects cancer cells.

The particles measure between 1 and 100 nanometers across. That’s smaller than the HIV virus but larger than a water molecule. Conrad described them to Medium as 2,000 times smaller than a red blood cell–easily small enough to travel anywhere in the body.

Google's explanation of how the nanoparticles work. Graphic by Google.

Google’s explanation of how the nanoparticles work. Graphic by Google.

That’s great for Google’s goals for the project because it means the particles can check out every corner of a person’s body. But it also opens up the potential for them to go places they maybe shouldn’t be, such as the lungs or the brain. The CDC notes that some types of nanoparticles have been shown to cause serious health proBLEMS, including inflammation and neurological problems.

But Google designed its nanoparticles specifically for human consumption. Most of the particles studied by the CDC were used for industrial purposes, and then accidentally inhaled. Conrad said at the WSJ.D Live conference Monday that after ingestion, Google’s particles would naturally pass out through the digestive tract. They can also be maneuvered in the body with magnets. Similar nanoparticles are already safely used for medical imaging.

Why is Google interested in diagnostics?

The nanoparticle bracelet is actually a complement to another project that Google X has been working on. Back in July, the division introduced its “Baseline Study,” which is meant to document exactly what it means to be a healthy individual. According to the original media release:

People tend to think of “health” and “illness” in a binary way, as two distinct states, because that’s often what it feels like when we’re the patient. It feels sudden—“I had a heart attack” or “I have cancer”. But in reality, 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.

But long before those symptoms appear, the chemistry of the body has changed — its cells, or the molecules inside cells. Unfortunately, the medical profession today doesn’t understand at that molecular level what happens when a body starts to get sick. And that’s why doctors typically can only treat disease once there are symptoms. If we could somehow detect those changes earlier, as soon as a body starts to move away from a “healthy” chemistry, this could change how diseases are detected, treated, or even prevented.

The bracelet is that “somehow,” as it would allow people to monitor those chemistry changes in real time. If it works, Google could change how the western world tackles disease.

Google X lead Andrew Conrad. Photo by Google.

Google X lead Andrew Conrad. Photo by Google.

But Google is an internet company, right? What’s it doing in the health sector? Well, it knows from its search, email and other business lines that there is money in data. Health data is no different.

OK, sign me up

Google’s diagnostic bracelet isn’t quite here yet. Google X has stated it is “still in the early stages of scientific exploration,” but Conrad did tell Medium that the lab is far enough along to be confident it can make the system work:

At our Google facilities, we’ve been able to build the nanoparticles, decorate them, prove that they bind to the things that we want them to bind to, in really clever artificial systems. We’ve made these molded arms where we pump fake blood through them and then try devices to detect the nanoparticles. We’re pretty good at concentrating and detecting nanoparticles. We’re pretty good at making sure that those particles bind only to cancer cells and not to other cells.

If it works, health could suddenly become something very quantifiable. There would be no more (or, at least, fewer) vague descriptions to doctors about vague symptoms. Clear answers would be available at the earliest possible moment. Who doesn’t want that?