Google's latest moonshot: a full map of the human body

Steven Loeb · July 25, 2014 · Short URL:

Google wants to find out what a healthy body looks like to help prevent future disease

I was talking to a big-time CEO a few years ago who told me that, as his company got bigger, he found it harder and harder to take risks, simply because there was so much more at stake. Once a company goes public, he told me, and has shareholders to answer to, there is a lot less room to innovate.

If this is true, then nobody seems to have told Google. Despite, or  maybe because of, being one of the biggest companies in the world, it has never lost that spirit of innovation, and of wanting to do big things. After all, this is the company that is championing the self driving carthe smart contact lens and Project Loon, which is Google's attempt to connect the entire world to the Internet by using balloons.

These are Google's so-called "moonshot projects." And now we are getting  a glimpse at its latest one: a map of the human body.

The project will be called Baseline Study, and will involve the collecting of genetic and molecular information from 175 people, at least at first. The exam, Google explains, will be like a regular phyiscal, where patients give blood and saliva samples. Eventually samples will be collected from many more people, in order to get a complete picture of what exactly a healthy person looks like.

The project won't be restricted to specific diseases, and it will collect hundreds of different samples using a wide variety of new diagnostic tools. Then Google will use its massive computing power to find patterns, or "biomarkers," buried in the information. The hope is that these biomarkers can be used by medical researchers to detect any disease a lot earlier.

The ultimate idea is that, once we know what a healthy person is, then we can better detect what a sick person looks like. Problems such as heart disease, and cancer, can be detected earlier and treated quicker.

It's a shift toward what many people feel like lacking in our current healthcare system: being preventative, rather than simply treating people once they get sick.

"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, ourbody’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," Google wrote. 

The problem is, though, that the body has begun changing long before any symptoms even occur. 

"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," Google said.

What Google w ants to do is create "a reference tool that could inspire even more research studies," one that can help the medical profession find ways of keeping people healthy. 

“It may sound counter-intuitive, but by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease,” Dr. Andrew Conrad, the man in charge of the project, said. “This research could give us clues about how the human body stays healthy or becomes sick, which could in turn unlock insights into how diseases could be better detected or treated.” 

This project would seem to go hand in hand with another one of Google's moonshot projects, and maybe it's most ambitious one of all: Calico, the company's attempt to take on the aging process. 

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