The news sounded either promising or ominous depending on the spin. The Google research arm, Google X, is investigating health, or trying to define it, or even build the perfect human. Either way, it’s a lot more ambitious than the self-driving car.
The Wall Street Journal broke the news last month in Google’s New Moonshot Project: The Human Body by Alistair Barr.
Google Inc. has embarked on what may be its most ambitious and difficult science project ever: a quest inside the human body.
Called Baseline Study, the project will collect anonymous genetic and molecular information from 175 people—and later thousands more—to create what the company hopes will be the fullest picture of what a healthy human being should be.
Those who covered the original Human Genome Project in the 1990s might remember that it, too, was compared to a moonshot, and it raised some of the same hopes for cures and fears over loss of privacy. Then there were other genome projects, including an attempt by a company called deCode Genetics to use DNA and health records from the population of Iceland.
How will this new project differ from what’s come before? Is it just a grander version of previous work or is there something fundamentally different? The WSJ says the main distinguishing feature is the focus on health rather than illness:
The study may, for instance, reveal a biomarker that helps some people break down fatty foods efficiently, helping them live a long time without high cholesterol and heart disease. Others may lack this trait and succumb to early heart attacks. Once Baseline has identified the biomarker, researchers could check if other people lack it and help them modify their behavior or develop a new treatment to help them break down fatty foods better,
Other outlets followed, many using material from the original WSJ story.
The Washington Post weighed in with Google wants to know how the human body works By Jiaxi Lu.
Again, the story says the main distinguishing feature is the focus on health rather than disease, though the volunteers for the original genome were also presumably healthy:
“It may sound counter-intuitive, but by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease,” said Andrew Conrad, molecular biologist who is leading the study at Google X. “This research could give us clues about how the human body stays healthy or becomes sick, which could in turn unlock insights into how diseases could be better detected or treated.”
At Newsweek, a story ran under the headline, Can Google Build the Perfect Human Being? By Paula Mejia
First there was Google Glass—now, Google Genetics? Yesterday The Wall Street Journal announced Google’s plans to create the ideal, holistic example of what a healthy human should be like.
This is a different spin, in that it suggests Google will not just explore why some people are healthy but will actually define what it means or point us to some sort of perfect human genome.
At Science, Jocelyn Kaiser acknowledges the sense of déjà vu for those who have followed human genomics over the last couple of decades. So in her story, Google X sets out to define health human, she focused on the important question of how the Google genome would be different. The head of the project, Andrew Conrad, is apparently not speaking to the press, but she found another good source:
Google declined to make Conrad available for an interview that might clarify how its project differs from others, but collaborator Robert Califf, a Duke cardiologist, provided more details to ScienceInsider. Califf said the study hopes to recruit 10,000 volunteers over 2 to 3 years from Palo Alto and the communities of Durham and Kannapolis in North Carolina. Participants will be tested for their genome sequence, blood proteins, and biochemical or so-called metabolomic profiles; in some cases, these data may eventually be combined with their electronic health records. Some participants will be healthy; others will have disease. The goal is to tease out new biomarkers that can detect diseases such as cancer and heart attacks earlier, according to Califf. Google X has “obviously got the computing power to do things on a bigger scale than other people,” he says.
Fascinating. It’s more than just genomics. It’s everything-omics in search of a crystal ball that will tell people who is marked for disease and who is destined for health. Whether this is a realistic goal is not clear, considering the role of unpredictable environmental factors and pure chance. Whether the venture succeeds or fails, it’s a story worth following. – Faye Flam