Google X cancer pill has 100 researchers and "years to go, not decades"

By Jonah Comstock
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andyAndrew Conrad, the Google X researcher heading up the company's recently-announced ingestible-wearable sensor platform, has shared a good deal more information about the project in an interview with BackChannel. He said he believes the project is only a few years away from viability.

Conrad said that Google has hired more than 100 people to work on the project and is working with MIT and Stanford on various aspects. He said that in the two years Google has been secretly working on this project, they've done nearly everything they can do in a lab. They're going public to look for partners, but also because the human tests will be too hard to keep secret.

"We’ve done a lot, to be quite humble about it," Conrad told BackChannel. "Enough to give us great confidence that this is all likely to work. At our Google facilities, we’ve been able to build the nanoparticles, decorate them, prove that they bind to the things that we want them to bind to, in really clever artificial systems. We’ve made these molded arms where we pump fake blood through them and then try devices to detect the nanoparticles. We’re pretty good at concentrating and detecting nanoparticles. We’re pretty good at making sure that those particles bind only to cancer cells and not to other cells."

Conrad also spoke in more detail about how exactly the technology works. He said that the very high level goal is to change the practice of medicine to be primarily preventative rather than reactive. The way to do that is to devise a completely noninvasive way to constantly monitor for disease. 

"Some cancers have ninety percent success rate if you diagnose them in early stage one," he said. "But most cancers have a five or ten percent survival rate if you diagnose them in stage four. We’re diagnosing cancer at the wrong time. It’s analogous to only changing the oil on your car when it breaks down. If you think of airplanes or cars or any complex entity, preventative maintenance has been proven without a doubt to be the better model. Yet for some reason we don’t concentrate on that in Western medicine. So our central thesis was that there’s clearly something amiss. So we needed to see if, with partners, we could change the system in healthcare from being reactive to proactive."

The Google Baseline study is very closely linked with the cancer sensor project, because the nanoparticle sensors will rely on data from the Baseline study to tell normal readings from readings that predict disease. As such, participants in the Baseline study will wear prototype versions of the wearable Google X is working on for the cancer sensor.

"Nanoparticles are the smallest engineered particles, the smallest engineered machines or things that you can make," Conrad explained. "Nature does its business on the molecular level or the cellular level. But for two thousand years we’ve looked at medicine at the organ or the organism level. That’s not the right way to do it. Imagine that you’re trying to describe the Parisian culture by flying over Paris in an airplane. You can describe the way the city looks and there’s a big tower and a river down the middle. But it’s really, really hard to opine or understand the culture from doing that."

Instead, Google's technology will coat nanoparticles, which are about 1/2,000th the size of a red blood cell, with chemical markers that will allow them to serve as tiny scouts; to store relevant information and transmit it back to the wearable in various ways.

"You can use these nanoparticles to detect rare things like a cancer cell or you can use them to measure common molecules. For example, in one case we put a coating on the nanoparticle that finds sodium — it’s a super common molecule but very important in renal disease. When a sodium molecule comes into the nanoparticle, it causes the nanoparticle to fluoresce light at a different color. So by collecting those nanoparticles at your wrist, where you have a device that detects these changes, we can see what color they’re glowing, and that way you can tell the concentration of sodium. In another case, by having a magnet at your wrist you can tell whether the nanoparticles are bound to cancer cells. This allows us to let these messengers walk around Paris, bring them all back to a central location, and ask them what they saw, what they did, what they encountered. And imagine that is the way in which we’re trying to understand the culture of the French."

Conrad even clarified the difference between Google X and Google Calicos' life-lengthening projects.

"Calico’s mission is to improve the maximum lifespan, to make people live longer through developing new ways to prevent aging," he said. "Our mission is to make most people live longer, getting rid of the diseases that kill you earlier."