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A New Google Search: The Hunt for Cancer

First, Google (GOOGL) gave us the ability to search for anything on the internet.

Now the company is taking things to the next level, by giving us the ability to search for cancer in the body.

Yep… you read that right.

The company’s latest medical project aims to improve what’s arguably the most critical component of stopping cancer in its tracks.

And it’s using two brilliant, fast-growing technologies to do so…

The Key to Eliminating Cancer

Last month, I told you about how a Brazilian bioengineer has devised a unique microfluidics- and smartphone-based system to diagnose cancer long before symptoms appear. And before the disease has had a chance to ravage the body and get beyond the point of effective treatment.

Google’s cancer-detection project shares the belief that the earlier the disease is found, the better the chance of survival.

Indeed, the molecular biologist leading Google’s new research, Dr. Andrew Conrad, tells the BBC, “What we’re trying to do is change medicine from reactive and transactional to proactive and preventative.”

It’s this kind of shift in thinking that makes the project a perfect fit for the Google X division, which is specifically designed to research new and innovative products and technologies.

And Google is using two of the fastest-growing, most fascinating innovations…

Innovation #1: Nanotech. The first part involves special nanoparticles, which “give you the ability to explore the body at a molecular and cellular level,” according to Dr. Conrad.

Among their brilliant features, nanoparticles can be constructed in a number of ways, and to look for a variety of different conditions. For example, using magnetism, Google researchers are looking at how to concentrate nanoparticles in a certain area, so they can attach to cells and certain parts of the body. Conversely, a different magnetic makeup would allow them to “float” around the body unattached, like roaming troubleshooters.

So they could look for (and attach to) cancerous cells, cancerous DNA, or monitor chemicals in the bloodstream, or a buildup of plaque that can cause cancer and heart attacks.

As the name suggests, nanoparticles are miniscule, too. In fact, 2,000 of them can squeeze into just one red blood cell.

The patient simply swallows a pill that’s loaded with whatever customized nanoparticles the scientists and doctors deem necessary for the individual – and they go to work.

Innovation #2: Wearable Tech. Once the nanoparticles are in the body, you obviously need to see what they find. That’s where the second part of the project comes in – a wearable wristband that uses light and radio waves to take readings from the nanoparticles at regular intervals. Google also wants the wristband to take non-invasive blood tests.

No matter how the nanoparticles are constructed, or where and how they move, the goal is the same: to identify potential problems at the earliest possible stage. This would allow doctors to treat the issue – and ideally eliminate it – before it worsens or spreads.

So what are Google’s chances of success here?

Google X: Converting Youthful Exuberance Into Revolutionary Tech

Well, it’s important to remember that Google X is still a young offshoot of the parent company. By nature, the research is novel, experimental, innovative, and often bold.

The cancer diagnosis research is still at a very early stage, so it’s too soon for any verdicts at the moment.

But Dr. Conrad does have success in the diagnostics area, having previously designed a cheap kit that tests for HIV.

The project has support, too.

Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of Britain’s Institute of Cancer Research, tells the BBC, “In principle, this is great. Any new ideas are welcome in the field. There is an urgent need for this. If we can detect cancer or other diseases earlier, we can intervene with either lifestyle changes or treatment. How much of this proposal is dream versus reality is impossible to tell because it’s a fascinating concept that now needs to be converted to practice.”

That’s what Google X plans to do. And with $60 billion in cash on the books, the parent company is certainly able to fund such ambitious research. But Conrad says the company will actively look for licensing partners in the biotech field, too.

Workman does warn, however, that Google must ensure absolute, undeniable accuracy from the system.

I mean, imagine getting a reading that shows you have cancer… only to find out that you actually don’t. Or receiving treatment for a problem that doesn’t need it.

The bottom line is that this project could be a resounding, lucrative hit – just like Google’s diabetes smart lens technology, which Novartis (NVS) licensed back in July.

Or it could be a resounding flop – like Google Flu Trends, which tried to pinpoint the location of flu outbreaks based on Google searches. Or Google’s collaboration with 23AndMe on a genetic testing kit, which regulators shut down.

But the fact that Google is innovating in such a critical field is to be applauded. Time will tell as to whether it works.


Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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