In its latest effort to reach its sky-high ambition to cure death, Google is working on a pill filled with tiny magnetic particles that can diagnose the existence of cancer, heart disease and other health problems.
At the Wall Street Journal WSJD Live conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Google X head of life sciences Andrew Conrad announced that the company's semi-secretive moonshot division is in the exploratory stages of creating a wearable device combined with nanotechnology that will allow people to identify certain disorders. Called the Nanoparticle Platform, the project involves creating magnetic nanoparticles that are a thousandth of the width of red blood cells and coated with antibodies that will fluoresce with molecules, proteins and abnormal cells inside the body.
The idea is for the person to swallow the pill to regularly monitor his health, while using a special wearable device that Google will develop to monitor these pills and collect information from them. Google says the goal is to make health care proactive instead of waiting for a disease to show itself before we make a move to combat it.
"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," says Conrad.
However, Google admits that the technology will not be around for at least another five to seven years from now. Conrad says the biggest challenges so far are technical and social, as his 100-person team in the life sciences division is still trying to determine the right antibodies to coat the nanoparticles and allow them to bind to certain cells. The team also faces the task of identifying how many nanoparticles are needed in a pill and creating a wearable device that is small and unobtrusive but powerful enough to call back information from the pill.
Chad A. Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, says Google's health-monitoring pills could face "a much higher regulatory bar than conventional diagnostic tools."
Moreover, a pill that regularly monitors and collects information from no less than the inside of the human body raises maximum privacy concerns. Conrad says the information gleaned by the pills could be uploaded to the cloud and sent to the patient's doctor, removing the need for going to the clinic to have blood and urine samples taken. However, Google is not exactly known for keeping its users' information private and was hugely criticized for handing over user information to U.S. government agencies in previous years.
Still, Conrad says Google has no plans to collect or share any information collected by the pills. Instead, it plans to license the technology to third-party health institutions who will handle the data themselves.
"It'd be like saying GE is in control of your X-ray," Conrad says. "We are the creators of the tech and they are the disseminators."
This isn't the first time Google is working on high-tech wearable diagnostic tools. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a smart contact lens that can detect a diabetic patient's blood sugar levels through the amount of glucose in the person's tears. Google is also developing vibrating utensils that can help counteract tremors in people with Parkinson's disease.