Google gathering data to build a picture of a healthy human

Google's headquarters--courtesy of Google
Google's headquarters--Courtesy of Google

Google ($GOOG) continued to reveal pieces of its expansion into life sciences this week, with a typically ambitious plan to map the characteristics of a healthy human the latest project to go public. The initiative is underpinned by Google's standard building blocks: data and computing horsepower.

A team at Google X--the unit behind experimental projects like "smart" contact lenses and driverless cars--is running the healthy human project, called Baseline Study. The goal is to establish what a healthy human looks like, a tool Google hopes will help researchers spot illnesses much earlier, shifting the focus of medicine from treatment to prevention. To build this picture of a healthy human, Google has contracted a clinical testing firm to gather samples and data from 175 people, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The 175-person pilot project began this summer. Google plans to add thousands more people to the program to give it the scale to answer the big question at the heart of the project. "With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems. That's not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like," Dr. Andrew Conrad, the person running the project, told the WSJ.

Google has tasked the clinical testing firm with taking samples of bodily fluids such as urine, blood, saliva and tears. And it also plans to build a repository of tissue samples, gather whole genome data and information on how people metabolize food and drugs. Some of the data gathering work spills over into other Google X projects, with Dr. Conrad saying the "smart" glucose-monitoring contact lenses will likely be used. Google X is also developing other wearable devices that may be used to monitor heart rates, heart rhythms, oxygen levels and other health metrics.

By combining all this data with the computing power Google has built to service its search business and YouTube, the team hopes to find biomarkers that make it possible to spot diseases much earlier. The thought of Google having all this personal health information is likely to make some people uneasy, a reality the search giant has taken steps to mitigate. Google will only get access to the data after it has been anonymized by third parties and boards at Duke University and Stanford University will decide how the resource is used.

- read the WSJ article (sub. req.)
- and its Google X profile

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