In what is being called Google’s “most ambitious project ever,” the computing giant has recently announced its latest long-term or moonshot project, known as Baseline. Baseline will be a collaborative effort between Duke University, Stanford University and Google X, Google’s research division. The goal is to create a detailed picture of human health by collecting molecular, genetic and other data from thousands of study participants. Ultimately, researchers hope that the study will allow them to pinpoint the moment at which diseases begin on the intracellular level.
This data could revolutionize the way doctors treat and prevent disease. While medical science has certainly made great strides over the past couple of centuries, doctors still can’t diagnose or treat an illness until it begins to show symptoms. By that time, the disease progression is often life threatening. If doctors could identify the moment at which the disease process begins on the molecular level, treating and preventing diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes could become much easier.
Collecting Data from Anonymous Participants
Though Baseline eventually hopes to collect biological data from thousands of participants, it’s currently collecting information anonymously from just 175 people. Dr. Andrew Conrad, the molecular biologist who developed cost-effective HIV tests for blood-plasma donations, is the brains behind the project. He joined Google’s research arm, Google X, in March 2013. A team of between 70 and 100 experts from such fields as molecular biology, physiology, imaging, optics and biochemistry have joined Dr. Conrad and Baseline.
Baseline will use new diagnostic tools, like Google’s smart contact lens, to collect biological data from study participants. The smart contact lens measures the level of glucose in the wearer’s tears, to help him or her track blood glucose levels. Google X Life Sciences is working on other wearable devices capable of collecting such data as heart rates and rhythms and blood oxygen levels.
Researchers on the study plan to collect whole genomes from their participants, as well as genetic history from participants’ parents. Tissue samples and bodily fluids including blood, urine, tears and saliva, would be collected from all participants. The study will also amass information on how each participant metabolizes drugs, nutrients and foods, how chemical reactions affect genomic expression and how stress affects heart rate.
Investigators at Stanford and Duke will collect data and samples from study participants, and remove any identifying information, like Social Security numbers or names. The universities will be responsible for passing the information on to Google researchers, who will not share the information with insurance companies. The same institutional review boards that supervise other medical research on humans will oversee Baseline. Stanford and Duke will retain control of how the information is used.
Sam Gambhir, chair of the Department of Radiology at Stanford University’s medical school and one of the researchers working on the study, told the Wall Street Journal that researchers are cognizant of the implications of allowing comprehensive medical data on thousands of people to fall into corporate hands. “Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data,” Dr. Gambhir said.
Working Toward a New Understanding of Disease
Baseline is not the first study to work toward furthering the scientific understanding of what it means to be well. Other studies like the Biobank study in the UK seek to collect biological data from a broad range of participants. Baseline hopes to collect a much larger set of data than any other study of its kind.
Researchers aren’t trying to collect data on specific conditions. Once samples are collected, Google will use its computing muscle to search for patterns that could help doctors of the future diagnose diseases much sooner. The study could identify why some people are prone to heart disease, for example, while others aren’t, and could even help doctors identify which of their patients might bear biomarkers indicating they’re at high risk for a specific disease. Once a patient is identified as high-risk, preventative measures could be taken to protect that person from developing the disease.
Most research studies, such as the ones used to develop the medications available in our trusted online pharmacy, are performed on people who are already sick. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with performing research to help sick people feel better, understanding the process by which patients get sick could help doctors keep healthy people healthy for much longer. At the moment, doctors and scientists understand very little about how enzymes, proteins, DNA and environmental factors really influence disease, but this study could shed light on those interactions.
Baseline, however, will take more than ten years to complete. Google says that it is performing the research in the interests of contributing to medical science. Google’s other moonshot projects include a plan to expand Wi-Fi access to remote locations using high-altitude balloons, and the development of a self-driving car.
Google has recently announced its intention to partner with Stanford and Duke Universities in a quest to more fully understand human health. The research project known as Baseline will take over a decade to complete, but will hopefully leave doctors with a more complete picture of how illness happens, and the ability to treat illness almost as soon as the disease process begins — long before symptoms appear.