Google's next frontier: What it means to be healthy

Google X teams with Duke, Stanford to spot early turn from health to disease

What makes people healthy?

That's a question researchers at Google X, along with scientists at Duke University and Stanford University, are looking to answer.

Google has launched a new project, dubbed the Baseline Study, that seeks to develop a greater understanding of what it means to be healthy.

"Most research studies focus on a particular disease. We're going to study health. We want to understand what it means to be healthy, down to the molecular and cellular level," the company noted in a release. "We think this could someday yield powerful insights for how diseases are understood, detected, and treated."

Google said it is in the process of enrolling 175 healthy people this summer. As the project, which is being led by Dr. Andrew Conrad of Google X, goes on, the patient base will be expanded.

Any results, according to the company, will be made available to other medical researchers.

Everyone in the study will undergo a physical exam similar to what they would get from a primary care physician, including the collection of body fluids like blood and saliva, Google noted.

"The biochemical fingerprint of a healthy individual would be a hugely important contribution to medical science, and it's possible that this study could bring that within reach," said Rob Califf, vice chancellor for clinical and translational research at Duke, in a statement. "This is worth striving for, because it could speed the pace of clinical research for decades to come and enable the development of new tests and techniques for detecting and preventing disease."

According to the researchers, it's important to study the makeup -- down to the molecular and cellular level -- of the healthy so researchers can create what's being called a baseline map of health. It's a "biochemical fingerprint" of what makes up a healthy person.

The map is important because a healthy person doesn't suddenly fall ill, for example, with heart disease or cancer.

"In reality, our body's chemistry moves gradually along a continuum from a state of health to a state of disease, and we only have observable symptoms when we're already far along that continuum," Google noted. "But long before those symptoms appear, the chemistry of the body has changed -- its cells, or the molecules inside cells. Unfortunately, the medical profession today doesn't understand at that molecular level what happens when a body starts to get sick."

Since doctors can't discover that someone is ill until the patient shows symptoms, the disease may have had time to progress to a dangerous state.

"If we could somehow detect those changes earlier, as soon as a body starts to move away from a "healthy" chemistry, this could change how diseases are detected, treated, or even prevented," Google noted.

Google said it's not working on the project to develop a new product but to contribute to medical science.

"It may sound counter-intuitive, but by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease," said Conrad. "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."

Google -- a company known for its search engine, the Android platform, its maps and digital eyewear -- isn't new to medical research.

In December 2010, Google launched a tool to provide users with a Body Browser, the tool explores inside the human body, using features initially created for the company's popular Google Earth and Maps applications.

Body Browser was built to enable users to identify various parts of the human body while searching for bones, organs and muscles. With the tool, users can rotate a 3D image of the body, peel away skin and investigate the different layers inside.

This article, Google's next frontier: What it means to be healthy, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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