Why Google wants to save your life

Google is working on a nanoparticle-covered pill that could cure a lot of health woes. Here's why.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Can one little pill save your life? Google is betting on it, or at least willing to sink a lot of money chasing the idea as Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at the Google X research lab, revealed recently at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference.

Briefly, the project is this: Google is creating a nanoparticle-covered pill that would work in tandem with a wearable magnetic device to detect cancer and heart disease—and presumably down the road, other issues—in the patient. In layperson's terms, the device would guide the pill to different parts of the body, whereupon it would detect, say, arterial plaque or cancer-related biomarkers.

For patients, such a pill—which is in the early stages of development and at best would be ready for testing in five years—would be nothing short of miraculous. The most compelling attraction, of course, is that it could eliminate invasive test procedures and possibly deliver a cure for cancer that doesn’t involve radiation or chemotherapy. Further along, it could lead to cures for other diseases.

It's interesting to consider why Google is working to develop this, beyond the obvious goal of revenues, which as any pharma company will tell you, is not necessarily a guaranteed outcome.

After all, this pill doesn’t touch on Google's business model directly or even indirectly the way Project Wing or Project Loon do. It does, of course, fall under the heading of "Don't Be Evil" but there are plenty of observers who are happy to retort that Google abandoned that operating principal years ago.

Here are three alternative theories on why Google's pushing this project.

Theory No 1: It is a natural follow on to other trends brewing in medical research and IT. That's according to Falguni Sen, a professor of management systems who heads up Fordhan University's Global Healthcare Innovation Center. "Data mining and intelligent search are becoming big in both identifying common causes and risk factors in diseases," he tells me—along with the growing ability to actually isolating molecules that might provide cure.

This is due to genomics, the now low cost of full gene sequencing and the use proteomics as pathways to new drugs and new therapies, he says.

Google is, of course, expert at data mining and intelligent search. Little wonder it feels it can tackle the scientific stuff.

Theory No. 2: It is part of Google's DNA to take a platform approach to data no matter what the subject. (Note that the project is literally called Nano-particle Platform.) Google mapped the Internet and then mapped the physical world. Now it wants to map the human body. It's like a shark in that respect: it moves forward because it simply has no other choice.

Theory No. 3: Google wants to see information technology remake health the way it has financial services and the consumer and retail sectors. "All of the developments we have seen in those sectors and take for granted have passed health care by," Morris Panner, CEO of DICOM Grid, a health IT company that focuses on digital medical imaging, tells me. Spurts of innovation can be found here and there, he says, and he includes, not surprisingly DICOM Grid in that assessment. But so far there hasn’t been the huge groundswell to fuel innovation that will lead to, say, a doctor being able to prescribe a medicine personalized to an individual's specific health profile.

That is where Google is heading, Panner believes. "It's not making a casual bet but is taking a deep and patient approach to remake an industry."

Whatever the motivation, one thing is clear: because Google is throwing its weight behind the technology, inevitably more companies and venture capitalists will follow suit and build on that first platform Google created. Sort of, if you are looking for a comparable example, the way Android inspired mobile developers and OEMs to build on and around it. Hmmm… maybe it isn’t such a stretch.

Theory No. 4. It is about the money.

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