Google X developing cancer-scanning pill that transmits to a wearable sensor

By Jonah Comstock
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Google's in-progress contact lens. Google's in-progress contact lens.

Google X, Google's department of long-term "moonshot" projects, has revealed another health-related undertaking. According to the AP, the tech giant announced at a Wall Street Journal event that it is developing a smart pill that could scan for cancer and send the results to a user's wearable sensor device.

The AP reports that the pill, which is in the early stages of research, is packed with tiny magnetic particles that can go looking for malignant cells in the bloodstream and report findings wirelessly to a wearable device. The team working on the system reportedly consists of doctors, including an oncologist, electrical and mechanical engineers, and an astrophysicist.

According to the BBC, the sensor's potential isn't limited to cancer: it could be used to detect early risk factors for heart disease or kidney disease, for example. 

The last health project announced through Google X was the Google Baseline Study, which will use a combination of genetic testing and digital health sensors to collect “baseline” data on 175 healthy people. The idea is to establish genetic biomarkers relating to metabolism, response to stress, and how genes affect different chemical reactions in the body.

Prior to that, Google X announced a smart contact lenses meant to monitor blood glucose levels through tears. Though the project has received a lot of press attention and is technically feasible, many in the glucose monitoring space are skeptical that Google can deliver a viable, accurate consumer product.

Google did get some credibility when Novartis subsidiary Alcon signed a licensing deal for the technology, although both companies still acknowledge the technology is a number of years away. According to the AP report, commercialization of the smart pill technology will likely take the same route.

Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences at Google X, told the AP that the company had "no interest" in using any of the data collected by the sensor for commercial purposes and that, as for commercializing the technology itself, "our partners would take care of all that stuff. We're the inventors and creators of the technology."

He added in an interview with the BBC that it would be a prescribed clinical technology, not a consumer one. It adds to mounting evidence that Google's professed reticence to be a healthcare company, articulated by Sergey Brin and Larry Page in a recent sit-down with Vinod Khosla, might be underselling their ambitions a bit. Google's far-fetched inventions may have an impact on the company's bottomline, but if successful, they'll certainly have one on healthcare.