Google X goes teeny-tiny to diagnose disease at its earliest stages

October 28, 2014, 8:11 PM UTC
Courtesy of Google

Google wants to help you proactively track your health, and it has a very tiny solution: nanoparticles.

Google X’s Life Sciences team is exploring the potential of nanodiagnostics, which uses teeny tiny particles that can bind themselves to disease cells for easy tracking. The goal is to actively track and diagnose diseases in their earliest stages. It’s part of the unit’s push to move medical care from reactive to proactive.

The company announced its new initiative Tuesday at the WSJDLive conference in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Nanoparticles, which are smaller than one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell, are already a prime area of biotechnology research. Companies like Nanosphere (NSPH), AuraSense, T2 Biosystems (TTOO) and Bind Therapeutics (BIND) are exploring uses for the microscopic particles from treatment to diagnosis of ailments like cancer and blood infections. AuraSense counts Bill Gates and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt as investors.

Google (GOOG) is building on existing nanoparticle research in order to find a way to leverage the technology for continuous testing and monitoring. The idea is that anyone could swallow a pill with nanoparticles that would then bind to certain types of cells that mark diseases, and a wearable device would attract those particles like a magnet, allowing doctors to count the number of cells.

This could potentially help doctors catch cancers or other dangerous ailments sooner and lead to early-intervention treatments and, hopefully, higher survival rates. Google X says the scope of the technology’s application could be huge.

“Maybe there could be a test for the enzymes given off by arterial plaques that are about to rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke,” the company said. “Perhaps someone could develop a diagnostic for post-surgery or post-chemo cancer patients – that’s a lot of anxious people right there.”

However, this kind of technology is still years off, the company said. Researchers need to figure out the right way to bind nanoparticles to the correct molecules, as well as how many are needed to accurately track a disease.

Not only that, but the Google X Life Sciences team first needs to understand how many molecules it takes to signify disease, which is the goal of the group’s Baseline study. Baseline is a multi-year scientific study to identify what makes up a “healthy” human on a molecular and cellular level.

The unit is also working on other innovative biotechnology and health-focused initiatives, including smart contact lenses that can track glucose levels for diabetics and the Liftware tremor-canceling spoon for Parkinson’s patients.

Once the technology is developed, Google plans to license out the product development to other companies in order to create pharmaceutical-grade diagnostics and test for efficacy and safety in clinical trials. Google X plans to focus on the early stage research.

Read more: Google and Novartis are ready to make reading glasses obsolete.

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