Can Google Build the Perfect Human Being?

Google sign
Google is plotting a massive data-gathering operation to cure disease. Mark Blinch/Reuters

First there was Google Glass—now, Google Genetics? YesterdayThe Wall Street Journal announced Google's plans to create the ideal, holistic example of what a healthy human should be like. Entitled the Baseline Study, the project will collect molecular and genetic information from people—175 at first this summer and thousands more later on—to build an extensive database aimed at preventing and treating diseases.

Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist and project manager at Google X, is heading the early-stage project. Conrad has built a team made up of 70 to 100 experts in a range of fields including biochemistry, optics, imaging and physiology, all housed within Google X—the company's secretive research arm. Some of Google X's more well-known projects have resulted in products like the driverless car and Google Glass. Google X envisions Baseline to be a bit different—more of an ongoing, extensive resource for researchers in the future, rather than a specific tech product.

Once all of the thousands of samples are gathered, Google will use its state-of-the-art software to find molecular sequences—or, biomarkers—within them. These biomarkers can signal a range of specific data points about a given body; for example, a biomarker could identify a protein excess or a mutated gene. Biomarkers aren't inherently bad. They can either be a biological advantage or disadvantage depending on the person and the specifics of the biomarker. Either way, they can be a boon to medical researchers, who could, for example, cross-reference the database in order to identify those people with, say, a biomarker linked to potential diabetes risk. Those people could then be flagged, and worked with to take steps to lower their risk for developing the disease.

The Baseline Study recently enlisted its first participants for an exam at a clinical testing firm this summer, and researchers have begun collecting basic bodily fluids and tissue samples from the volunteers. The lead investigators at these studies (who are not Google employees) have then been removing the participants' names and Social Security Numbers from the samples. Once the samples have been stripped of the patient's identity, researchers and Google can access the data in the system.

Google's massive computing power will enable researchers to easily search, store and share key medical information. While the data could help make significant strides in medical research, privacy is a notable concern. However, Google says that patients' sensitive data will only be shared with medical service providers and will not be disclosed to insurance companies. Baseline's data will be monitored by institutional review boards at Stanford University and Duke University, respectively.

Dr. Sam Gambhir, chair at the Department of Radiology at Stanford University Medical School, told The Wall Street Journal that "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data." Gambhir has been working alongside Conrad on Baseline for the past year.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Gambhir launched a similar sequencing study 10 years ago that tapered off due to exorbitant costs. But the cost of collecting genetic and molecular information has declined significantly in the past 15 years—sequencing a human genome now only costs $1,000 instead of $100 million for the process in the early 2000s.

Nevertheless, researchers told The Wall Street Journal that the project is "a giant leap into the unknown," and Conrad himself admits advances will likely be made "in little increments." But if Baseline is successful, it could ultimately become the best tool we have to understand how the human body can achieve peak health.