Google Wants to Know How People Get Sick

This handout photograph obtained April 14, 2017 courtesy of Verily Life Sciences in San Francisco shows Verily's wrist-worn "Study Watch" designed to gather complex health data in clinical studies. Study Watch is meant for research and will be put to work in several studies including a multi-year study to identify patterns in the progression of Parkinson's disease, according to a blog post by Verily team members David He, Tushar Parlikar, and Harry Xiao. / AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO AND VERILY LIFE SCIENCES COPYRIGHT 2017 / VERILY LIFE SCIENCES COPYRIGHT 2017 / == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / VERILY LIFE SCIENCES COPYRIGHT 2017 " / NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo credit should read VERILY LIFE SCIENCES COPYRIGHT 2/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

Verily, the Google/Alphabet arm that focuses on the life sciences, announced a big new health study in collaboration with Duke University and Stanford Medicine this morning. The study, part of Verily’s “Project Baseline” drive, will recruit around 10,000 participants and be conducted over the course of the next four years at research sites across the country.

What makes the study so interesting is the depth of its ambition. Verily wants to keep tabs on everything from participants’ biometrics through the use of wearable sensors to their general well-being through interactive smartphone surveys. It will also regularly collect data such as “clinical, imaging, self-reported, physical, environmental, and molecular and genetic measurements,” as well as biospecimens like “blood, tears, and saliva, among others,” says the company. This will create an extensive “map” of human health.

The goal here is to figure out what combination of these metrics represent someone who’s in good health—and to observe how healthy people eventually become sick. With this approach, Verily thinks it can suss out the risk factors for various illnesses and eventually help people stop diseases in their tracks with a healthy assist from digital technologies.

“Through the Project Baseline study, we are aiming to engineer a true twenty-first century approach to health—in a preventive and personalized way,” said Dr. Adrian Hernandez, professor of medicine at Duke and member of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, in a statement. “Instead of having the annual physical exam that has not changed in decades, we’re hoping to develop new platforms that will discover changes in health as it happens in meaningful and actionable ways.

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, explained how this sort of deep-seated data and continuous data collection could change treatments down the line. “The Project Baseline study has the opportunity to significantly influence our current body of knowledge by better understanding the indicators of wellness,” she said. “The outcome of this study could inspire a new generation of tools that are geared towards disease prevention versus just diagnosis and treatment.”

Verily’s own tech is a major component of Project Baseline. Earlier this month, the firm announced that its continuous health tracking watch for medical research, dubbed the “Study Watch,” would be used in clinical studies including a new Parkinson’s research initiative in the Netherlands. The watch can measure heart rate and even collect an electrocardiogram.

A version of this essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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