Google, Biogen will use wearable sensors to study multiple sclerosis

By Aditi Pai
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Biogen Idec used Fitbit bands in a previous study Biogen Idec used Fitbit bands in a previous study

Biogen Idec has partnered with Google X, Google's business unit for long-term “moonshot” projects, to study outside factors that might contribute to the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a report from Bloomberg.

Google and Biogen will use sensors, software, and data analysis tools to collect and analyze data from people who have MS. The companies aim to explore why MS progresses differently in each patient.

Bloomberg pointed out that Biogen has used digital tools for its disease research in the past. Last month, Biogen announced that it was using Fitbit activity trackers to gather data from people who have MS. It gave 250 Fitbit bands to participants to track their level of activity and sleep patterns. Last summer, the pharma company worked with Cleveland Clinic to develop an iPad app to assess MS progression. 

Most recently, Biogen poached Boston Children's Hospital Chief Innovation Officer Naomi Fried to become Vice President of medical information, innovation, and external partnerships at Biogen. Fried, who founded The Innovation Acceleration Program in 2010 and made the hospital well known as a trail blazer for leveraging health technology, will focus on specific diseases -- multiple sclerosis and hemophilia -- at Biogen.

Last year, Google also made quite a few moves in the digital health space. The company partnered with Novartis, another pharmaceutical company, to license its smart contact lens, which Google announced in January 2014 as a noninvasive method of measuring blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.

A month later, Google announced the Google Baseline study, which will use a combination of genetic testing and digital health sensors to collect “baseline” data on healthy people. The idea is to establish genetic biomarkers relating to “how [patients] metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast their hearts beat under stress and how chemical reactions change the behavior of their genes.”

Two of the company's most recent health projects include a cancer-scanning pill and genomics database. In October, Google X revealed that it is developing a smart pill that could scan for cancer and send the results to a user’s wearable sensor device. The pill is packed with tiny magnetic particles that can go looking for malignant cells in the bloodstream and report findings via Bluetooth to a wearable device. A week later, Andrew Conrad, the project lead, added that he believes the project is only a few years away from viability.

And later that month, Google announced Google Genomics, an initiative to store human genome data for them in a secure cloud for $25 per year.

While Novartis and Biogen have both announced disease research initiatives that take advantage of digital tools, not all life sciences companies are pursuing digital health-enabled projects. In August 2014, Genentech CEO Ian Clark, who was discussing wearables at a Rock Health event, added that although wearables that track blood pressure and ECG are interesting, most wearables are "a bit trivial right now."