By Justine Alford     October 28, 2014 


Google’s continuing efforts to change the world are certainly commendable, to say the least. It's revolutionized the internet and is in the process of developing a self-driving car and sending weather balloons into the sky to give remote areas access to the web. Now, it’s set on postponing death by changing the way we diagnose disease.

Announced on October 28 at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference, Google X’s latest ambitious project involves developing a novel way to diagnose a variety of conditions, including cancer, at much earlier stages than is presently possible. The technology will have two main components: disease-detecting nanoparticles and a wearable sensor that’s much like a wrist watch.

The nanoparticles, which will be around one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell, will be designed in such a way that they stick to disease-specific molecules in the body. Readings of these nanoparticles will then be taken regularly throughout the day by the watch-like device using either light or radio waves. If successful, this early warning system has the potential to save many lives because it would mean that possibly fatal conditions can be picked up before they become too late to treat.

The nanoparticles that Google is hoping to develop are not a “one size fits all,” but rather a whole range of microscopic detectives that are designed to match different disease markers. Some could target cell surface proteins that are only expressed on cancerous cells, whereas others might pick up fatty plaques before they slough off from blood vessels, which could cause a stroke. The particles would also be magnetic so that they can be guided towards the magnet-bearing wrist device.


Google graphic

Once they reach the wrist vasculature, they inform the sensor of the results of the latest scour, which can be downloaded using software. Doctors can then be alerted of any significant changes in the individual’s biochemistry. The whole thing would also be non-invasive as the particles would be introduced by a pill, negating the need for the removal of blood or other bodily fluids.

“What we are trying to do is change medicine from reactive and transactional to proactive and preventative,” project leader Dr. Andrew Conrad told the BBC. “Nanoparticles… give you the ability to explore the body at a molecular and cellular level.”

While this all sounds great on paper, some issues with the idea have already been raised. The technology needs to be incredibly precise to avoid false positive results, which could lead to anxiety and unnecessary intervention. What’s more, if there is no treatment, would you really want to know if you had the condition?

Google has claimed that the technology could reach the market within the next five to seven years, but that seems a little fanciful as it’s still uncertain whether the whole thing is feasible. Furthermore, even if they do manage to perfect the nanoparticles, they’ll need to get FDA approval and conduct large clinical trials to prove that it’s safe and effective. However, their commitment and determination is laudable, and they’ve said that they won’t use the data for marketing, and will even license the technology to partners to manage.

“We are the inventors of the technology,” Conrad said, “but we have no intentions of commercializing it or monetizing it in that way.”