Google X nanoparticle pills to improve early cancer detection?

The latest moonshot from Google's labs will use iron oxide-based particles combined with a magnetic wearable device for health screening.

Google has revealed the latest sci-fi project brewing in its X research labs: an initiative exploring the feasibility of ingested nanoparticles to help early cancer detection.

Dr Andrew Conrad, the head of life sciences at Google X, revealed the project at this week's Wall Street Journal WSJD Live conference. Its labs are working on magnetic nanoparticles designed to hunt down and latch on to cells, proteins and other molecules inside the body. Google is also developing a wearable that would attract and count the particles.

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The goal of the project is to develop a system that improves early cancer detection, tapping into prevailing thinking on the best way to tackle different types of cancer. Similar to other X projects, it has big ambitions, with Conrad saying that the team's dream is that "every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system".

Or, as Conrad told Medium, Google X hopes to build a real life version a Tricorder that featured in Star Trek, which had a medical version that was designed to diagnose diseases and collect information about the body.

The system aims to shift today's practice of going for a check up after noticing something unusual, to "continuous measurement of key biological markers through non-invasive devices".

According to Conrad, the core of the nanoparticle it's developing is iron oxide and would be safe in the body. The outside would be coated with a smart layer designed to seek certain things like sodium molecules which are important in renal disease. The magnetic wearable meanwhile would be to rally the nanoparticles for observation.

Like many endeavours Google embarks on, this one too has the potential for controversy: there have been questions raised over whether intensive cancer screening may have negative side effects.

Conrad joined Google X’s health team last March and has, according to a WSJ profile this July, been building a crack squad of experts from a range of fields including physics, maths, zoology and molecular biology. Other projects from the division include the smart contact lens it showed off earlier this year .

While the technology may be some time away yet, Conrad also told Medium Google had filed a "substantial body of patents" that will become publicly noticeable in the next month.

He added that plan would be for Google to license its technology to pharmaceutical partners, pointing out that Google did that for its smart lenses through a deal with Novartis.

And if swallowing a Google pill that monitors you constantly is an unsettling idea, Conrad pointed to other circumstances, such as detecting the reoccurrence, for example, of breast cancer after initial chemotherapy.

The difference between Google's other big health project, Calico, was that it was focused on longevity by preventing ageing. This project however seeks to prevent diseases that would kill a person earlier.

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