The team has developed "smart contact lenses" to measure levels of glucose in the participants.
Image credit: Google/Associated Press
In Google terms, moonshots are long-term research projects that will take more than a decade to achieve fruition. Examples of moonshots reported to be currently in development include and the "Project Loon" mission to take Wi-Fi coverage to remote areas of the globe using a network of high-altitude balloons.
Perhaps hinting at Google's new health care interests, recently, the company's CEO and co-founder, Larry Page, suggested that as many as 100,000 lives a year could be saved by data-mining health care data - identifying patterns and establishing relationships in large amounts of information.
In Baseline, the Google X, Duke and Stanford researchers will collect anonymized genetic and molecular data from an initial 175 participants, later examining data from thousands more subjects. Part of this data will come from "smart contact lenses" that the team has developed to measure levels of glucose in the participants.
The end goal is to create what Google hope will be the most complete picture yet describing what makes up "a healthy human." This picture, the company hopes, will provide science with a "baseline" reference of what the genetic components are that make up good health.
Tackling health from a prevention, rather than treatment, standpoint
Aimed at prevention - rather than treatment - of illness, the logic behind the project is to harvest data that will assist researchers in finding new ways to predict or detect serious conditions much earlier. To do this, Google will apply their computing power - which consists of one of the world's largest networks of data centers - to unearthing biomarkers buried in the collected data.
Researchers can then use the biomarkers to help at-risk populations modify their behaviors or develop new preventive medicines for their conditions.
A Computerworld feature on the initiative quotes a statement from Google explaining the philosophy behind Baseline:
"In reality, our body's chemistry moves gradually along a continuum from a state of health to a state of disease, and we only have observable symptoms when we're already far along that continuum. But long before those symptoms appear, the chemistry of the body has changed - its cells, or the molecules inside cells. Unfortunately, the medical profession today doesn't understand, at that molecular level, what happens when a body starts to get sick
If we could somehow detect those changes earlier, as soon as a body starts to move away from a 'healthy' chemistry, this could change how diseases are detected, treated, or even prevented."
However, in the wake of recent privacy scandals involving the company, some experts are wary, suggesting that while the benefits to science may be obvious, what Google as a corporation are getting out of it is less clear. A worry voiced by some critics is that the data may not be made available to other researchers.
"I don't know their agenda," one expert told a Canadian newspaper reporting on Baseline, "the issue here would be the transparency, are they going to make all this data available?"
Dr. Sam Gambhir, chair of the Department of Radiology at Stanford University's medical school, who has been working on Baseline for more than a year, told The Wall Street Journal that the project will be monitored by institutional review boards, with Duke and Stanford Universities - rather than Google - controlling the information and how it is used.
"That's certainly an issue that's been discussed," he said. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data."
Information that could be used to identify participants - such as names and Social Security numbers - will also be removed by the universities before Google and other researchers are allowed access to the data.
Baseline is led by Dr. Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist who joined Google X in March 2013, and who has assembled a team of around 100 experts from the fields of physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging and molecular biology for the study.
Although similar projects are already in existence, such as the UK's Biobank imaging study, Baseline proposes to collect the largest and broadest set of data yet.