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Google aim to discover what it takes to be healthy


I wrote recently about the value inherent in your doctors understanding the kind of places you go online to search for information about your ailments, both in the sense that they can warn you about disreputable sources but also learn about some of the more valid areas of exploration.

This process has also seen a growing movement to make doctors notes much more transparent, with experiments and trials throughout the world showing that patients, and indeed doctors, gain tremendously from making their notes available to patients.

An interesting project along these lines was launched by Google recently.  The project, known as the Baseline Study, aims to collect genetic and molecular information from a group of 175 participants in order to better understand what a healthy human body looks like.

The inspiration behind the study is to shift away from traditional medical research, which tends to explore the sick, towards a study that flips it around to instead explore the healthy.  It will do this by looking for biomarkers that highlight a particular state of health.

Initial participants for the study have already been identified, and some preliminary data on their bodily fluids has been collected.  There are also plans to sequence the genome of each participant too, before they are asked to monitor their health using an array of wearable devices.

These will include a number of technologies developed by the Google X laboratory, such as a smart contact lens that can detect glucose levels from our tears.  The lab is also working on devices to measure heart rate and various other vital signs.

The hope is that the pilot will herald a much bigger study featuring thousands of participants that will be run in conjunction with Stanford and Duke Universities.

Suffice to say, this is unusual territory for a search engine company, so there have been concerns over just what Google will do with this data.  Google themselves say that all of the data collected will be anonymous, with none of it sold on to third party companies.  There is as yet however no clear indication as to what Google will do with the information, nor indeed whether they will make it available to the participants themselves.

The initial sense is that Google are doing this as much for altruistic purposes as any direct gain for them as a company.  What it does do however is re-open the debate about making healthcare data much more open and accessible.  Google are strong advocates of such an approach, and this study could undoubtedly be seen as them funding the first shot in attempts to bring about change.

Of course, Google aren’t the only organization doing this kind of work, with the UK Biobank undertaking similar research here in Britain.  The project has recruited over 500,000 participants thus far who have undergone measures, provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, detailed information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed. Over many years this will build into a powerful resource to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not.

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