Jul 25, 2014

Google is collecting medical data to paint a picture of perfect human health

Google has started to collect medical data from volunteers as part of an ambitious project designed to build a database of records that show what a healthy human being should be. The project, developed by Google's experimental Google X wing and called Baseline Study, sees the company first harvesting anonymous genetic and molecular information from 175 people. According to The Wall Street Journal, Baseline Study will soon draw information from thousands more in a bid to create a picture of a person in perfect health.

The project is designed to pull together a huge amount of data that will not only allow medical professionals to detect and treat major health issues such as heart disease and cancer earlier, but will also enable them to detect trends and patterns in human health, making medicine more about the prevention of illness rather than the cure. It's helmed by Dr. Andrew Conrad, who joined Google X in March 2013 after helping develop cheap, high-volume HIV tests for blood plasma donations. The Wall Street Journal reports Conrad has built of a team of between 70 and 100 experts for the projects, from medical fields including physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging, and molecular biology.

Project Baseline will use Google's computational power to identify "biomarkers" in the data that could help people stave off or avoid health issues. Medical science has traditionally discovered biomarkers for late stage diseases, but it's Google's hope that Project Baseline will also be able to crunch through data to detect tendencies in our bodies that can be addressed before they become life-threatening.

Dr. Conrad posits an example where the data allows researchers to pick out a biomarker that shows some people can break down fatty foods efficiently. Others, he suggests, may lack the marker, putting them at risk from heart disease. By identifying such trends before the disease has become too severe and treatment is necessary, Project Baseline's information could suggest people change their behavior before their first heart attack, or enable scientists develop something to help at-risk people break down fatty foods.

Dr. Conrad warns against expecting the data to spit out an immediate cure for cancer, saying that advances will be made in "little increments." The project began this summer when a clinical testing firm that Conrad declined to name enrolled 175 people in an exam that demands the collection of bodily fluids including urine and tears. The unnamed clinic, plus other facilities at Duke and Stanford Universities, will run further exams in the future, collecting samples and removing information such as names and social security numbers from participants.

The rapidly decreasing cost of collecting genetic and molecular information has only recently made Project Baseline possible. Participants' genomes will now be sequenced — a process that once cost $100 million, now reduced to around $1,000 — along with their parents' genetic history. The Wall Street Journal says data on how they metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast their hearts beat under stress and how chemical reactions change the behavior of their genes will also be recorded.

The project promises much, but by collecting so much information about participants, it also raises privacy concerns. What happens if a person's molecular makeup get into the hands of others? Already Google has clarified the medical data it receives will be anonymous by the time it gets its hands on it, and specified that such information would not be shared with insurance firms. Dr. Sam Gambhir, a Stanford doctor who has been working with Google for more than year, says that the issue of privacy has been discussed. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data," he told The Wall Street Journal.

It's unclear how Project Baseline will tie in to Calico, the Google company tasked with extending human life, but it's obvious the company is serious about making humans live longer. But although Google X is actively entering the healthcare market, creating glucose-measuring contact lenses, the company's leaders have expressed their frustration at the industry's regulation and restrictions. Speaking earlier this month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said healthcare in the US was "so heavily regulated that it's just a painful business to be in;" at May's Code conference, he expressed his exasperation over how jealously medical companies guard their data, suggesting that by applying machine learning to existing sets of data to pick out patterns, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved every year.

Google and Apple have both announced health tracking platforms this year, but Project Baseline looks to be more ambitious than both Apple's Healthkit and Google Fit. If Google's attempt to apply its number-crunching capabilities to our medical records pays off, the hundreds of thousands of lives Sergey Brin mentions could be spared. We might also get the dubious pleasure of meeting the world's healthiest person in the process.