Google Dives into Cancer Cell Research


Judy Lau
Staff Writer

Google is designing tiny magnetic particles to patrol the human body for signs of cancer, providing an early warning system for diseases.

The nanoparticles are less than one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell and will attach themselves to cells, proteins, or other molecules inside the body. Google is also working on a wearable device capable of generating a magnetic field, for use as a monitoring tool.

“Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system,” said molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at the Google X research lab. “That is our dream.”

Conrad announced the project on Tuesday, Oct. 28, at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live Conference.

This technology is likely over five years into the future, industry experts say, and it faces huge technical and social challenges. Researchers must identify coatings that will help the particles bind to specific cells. Additionally, the wearable device needs to be small enough to be unobtrusive but big enough to accommodate a battery that rarely needs charging.

Google may deliver the nanoparticles as a pill to be swallowed. This system would face “a much higher regulatory bar than conventional diagnostic tools,” said Chad A. Mirkin, director of the Internal Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University.

Google’s monitoring tools also face social concerns, including privacy. The notion of Google monitoring the human body around the clock worries critics who say the company will have too much information and access.

However, Conrad stated that Google would not collect or store medical data itself. Instead, Google plans to license the technology to others who will handle the information and security.

“These are not consumer devices,” he said. “They are prescriptive medical devices, and you know that doctor-patient relationships are pretty privileged and would not involve Google in any way.”

The initiative is part of Google’s broader efforts to expand into new areas. Many projects are being run by the Google X research lab, including Glass wearable computers and self-driving cars. Google has also recently purchased Lift Labs, a small company famous for developing a stabilizing spoon for those with Parkinson’s disease.

The Google X team wants to harness data to make medicine more proactive. In addition to the wrist monitoring tool, Google is also working on a smart contact lens to measure glucose in the tears of diabetes patients.

Proponents believe nanotechnology has great promise in medicine despite its few successful commercial products. Google has reported progress with the iron-oxide nanoparticles necessary for their project, and the team is currently identifying the coatings needed for nanoparticle binding. Google is hoping to paint its nanoparticles with an antibody capable of latching onto to the proteins of tumor cells.

The Google research team is currently conducting a baseline study, the goal of which is to build a detailed picture of a healthy human being by genetically screening samples from thousands of people. Although Google is at least five to seven years away from a feasible product, the current study will help create a benchmark for comparisons.

“We need to know the healthy levels of these disease-carrying molecules in the blood,” Dr. Conrad said, “and we don’t know now.”