When Google announced plans to transform its Life Sciences department into its own company (under the new Alphabet umbrella), it was considered a bold move by those in the pharma industry.
Already work has been underway on a number of projects, such as the smart contact lens for diabetics that determines glucose levels through a person’s tears. But now Google plans to tackle the likes of cancer, Parkinson’s and heart disease in the quest to cure some of humanity’s biggest diseases.
In the pipeline is a sensor built to study the biological factors behind multiple sclerosis. There’s also the baseline study, the initiative designed to map out the genetic makeup of a healthy human body. But what is perhaps the company’s most ambitious project is their plan to develop a pill that detects cancer and various other diseases by sending magnetic nanoparticles into the bloodstream.
So what has prompted Google’s move into the healthcare space? For Google heads Sergey Brin and Co-Founder Larry Page, it appears personal. Whereas Brin’s mother suffers from Parkinson’s disease, Page suffers from a rare condition affecting his vocal cords. However, as the leaders of one of the most profitable companies in the world, the move is simply good business. According to a recent article that appeared in Forbes, Google’s foray into the healthcare space is "ultimately aimed at eventual market leadership".
And if that is the case, what does it mean for the industry at large?
For the smart contact lens, Google has paired up with Novartis pharmaceuticals, while they are also partnering with Biogen on their MS project mentioned previously. All of this signals Google’s intent to partner with other pharmaceutical companies on future projects.
"I think it’s a great opportunity for us as consumers," said Darlene Ebeling, associate director of Clinical Operations at Pharmacyclics. "It’s also great for them because they have the innovation and creativity to apply some of the thoughts that perhaps we as an industry haven’t thought of before, certainly from a technology point of view. It’s thinking outside the box and taking a different avenue and putting out into the marketplace sooner".
Where Google is looking to make the most strides, however, is in developing wearable technology. The company’s Life Sciences team (Google X) is now creating a health sensor to be used solely for clinical trials. Designed to measure the pulse, activity level and skin temperature, the wristworn sensor would help physicians and researchers understand biological patterns, which could allow them to diagnose diseases earlier. The data collected from the device is then synced through to an online portal.
What’s more, Google X head, Andy Conrad said in a statement, "we’re developing the analysis techniques and software to make sure that the information is medically-relevant and useful for clinicians". The ability to securely store, analyze, and interpret the data from this device, Conrad said, is almost as important as the technology itself.
The impact of wearable devices used solely for clinical studies could be huge for the industry, with the potential for more real time data that is reliable. It also allows clinicians to monitor their patients’ health away from the investigative site. While there are questions as to whether that would be costly endeavour (it may be the case initially, but what about in the long run?), it all aligns with the industry’s move to engage more with patients as clinical trials become more patient centric.
At this point in time, how effective this medical device will be is unknown. But if the results from Google are positive, we could be witnessing the start of a new age in clinical research.