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Google’s quest to disrupt the health industry just got properly serious. While everyone else is fiddling around wearables and apps, Google is allowing people to consult doctors without leaving their houses and is now working on a nanoparticle pill that could identify cancers and other diseases before they become a problem.
The product is being developed by the technology giant’s highly secretive Google X division. The pill, Google says, would contain magnetic particles that are approximately 10 000 times smaller that the width of a human hair. The magnetic particles will have antibodies or proteins attached to them and they will be able to detect the presence of “biomarker” molecules within the human body which indicate diseases such as cancer or an imminent heart attack. Google reckons that this will enable it to detect diseases before they become dangerous.
That in turn could turn the entire health industry on its head. At the moment, diagnosis is only possible once illness can be detected. Even when we detect diseases at an early stage, it can sometimes still be too late.
Explaining the innovation, Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences inside the Google’s “moonshot” X research lab, said:
“Essentially the idea is simple; you just swallow a pill with the nano particles, which are decorated with antibodies or molecules that detect other molecules. They course through your body and because the cores of these particles are magnetic, you can call them somewhere and ask them what they saw.”
Conrad further explains that the particles would be analogous to sending thousands of doctors down into the population of a large city to monitor what is going on with individuals, describing current medical techniques as having one doctor fly over the city it in a helicopter trying to see what’s causing issues with individual people.
Once the nanoparticles are sent off into the body to diagnose, they can file a report on a wearable magnetic device that tracks the particles. Conrad hinted that the particles could also work with a wrist-worn device like a smartwatch.
“If you look at your wrist you can see these superficial veins – just by putting a magnet there you can trap [the nanoparticles],”
The project is said to be five years off. In that time Google hopes to figure out how many nanoparticles are enough to identify early traces of diseases and develop coatings for the particles that will let them bind to targeted cells.
It is believed that more than 100 Googlers are working on the project. “We’re trying to stave off death by preventing disease,” Conrad said “Fundamentally, our foe is death. Our foe is unnecessary death. Because we have the technology to intervene, and we should expend more energy and effort on it.”
Conrad also stressed that it would not be Google operating the technology. Google, he says, would not be the one with access to the data collected by the nanaoparticle but it would be the patients’ doctors, hospitals and medical equipment companies that take to the technology.
“We are the creators of the tech and they are the disseminators.” said Conrad.
The biggest challenge for Google won’t even be developing the nanoparticle technology but it would be attaining a medical licence for the nanoparticles to be administered. Google will have to prove that this technology will not harm patients. Considering that in July Google managed to get “smart”, its project that will enable Google to create contact lens capable of monitoring the sings of diabetes licensed, and is currently developed it into a practical medical application, there is hope for this “moonshot”.