Google’s ambition to cure death is beginning to take shape in a new product from its Google X division. Andrew Conrad, the head of the company’s life sciences division announced the details of an effort that would use nanotechnology to identify signs of disease. The project would employ tiny magnetic nanoparticles, said to be one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell, to bind themselves to various molecules and identify them as trouble spots.
Google’s nanotechnology project, which would also involve a wearable magnetic device that tracks the particles, is said to be at least five years off, according to an accompanying report in the Wall Street Journal. The company is still figuring out how many nanoparticles are necessary to identify markers of disease, and scientists will have to develop coatings for the particles that will let them bind to targeted cells. One idea is to deliver the nanoparticles via a pill that you would swallow.
Fundamentally, Our Foe Is Death
More than 100 Googlers are now working on the project.
“We’re trying to stave off death by preventing disease. Fundamentally, our foe is death. Our foe is unnecessary death. Because we have the technology to intervene, and we should expend more energy and effort on it.” Conrad said on stage at WSJD Live.
Nanoparticles inside the body will be subject to heavier regulation than a device that uses them outside the body. Google will have to prove to the FDA that their method is safe and effective in large, controlled clinical trials. To do that, they will first have to determine a dose of nanoparticles for use, which the company has not yet done.
The idea behind using nanoparticles to catch cancer and other illnesses is pretty simple. Cancer cells often express proteins or sugars not found on healthy cells; a nanoparticle with a coating that binds cancer-only cells could be a useful tool for diagnosing the disease. There are two barriers here: the first is our knowledge of cancer-specific proteins or sugars; the second is finding out what coatings they would bind to.
The Nanoparticles Will Talk To The Wristband Using Light
When Google first announced the project they didn’t discuss how the nanoparticles would relay their findings. But, in a video from The Atlantic, employees explain that they’ll be using light signals to talk to the wristband through the superficial veins on the underside of the wrist. Of course, shining lights through the skin means factoring in a range of skin types and colours, and so Google’s scientists have built fake arms with “the same autofluoresecence and biochemical components of real arms.” Thus the fake skin.
The video itself is well worth a watch and offers a tantalising glimpse into the goings-on at Google X. Andrew Conrad, the head of Google’s Life Sciences department, also has a good response to those who might object that it’s weird having nanoparticles floating through your body constantly tracking you. “It’s way weirder,” says Conrad, “to have cancer cells floating through your body that are constantly trying to kill you.”