Google Is Working on a Pill That Can Figure Out What Ails You

Microscopic particles will spy on the cells of your body and look for any disease, including cancer

pills in hand
JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Corbis

Swallow this pill: Google would like to send nanoparticles coursing through your bloodstream to sniff out disease. It sounds like science fiction, but this product is already in development.

"Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system," said Andrew Conrad, the head of the Life Sciences team at  Google X (the lab that gave us Google Glass), during The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD live conference on Tuesday. 

The nanoparticles could be delivered in a pill you swallow, according to Wired. In his talk, Conrad described how it would work: "Because the core of these particles is magnetic, you can call them somewhere," he said. For example, a magnet placed along the inside of your forearm would collect the particles in the veins that run just under your skin. “These little particles go out and mingle with the people, we call them back to one place, and we ask them: ‘Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium?”

But how far along is this dream? Alistair Barr and Ron Winslow for The Wall Street Journal report:

The reality is likely more than five years off, industry experts say, and faces huge challenges, both technical and social. Researchers have to identify coatings that will help the particles bind to specific cells. And Google doesn’t yet know how many nanoparticles would be needed for the system to work.

But using nanoparticles the home in on particular cells—cancer cells—is already a reality. Gold-coated particles can embed themselves in tumors, heat up and kill cancer cells, this reporter wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine. So far, Google has used iron-oxide particles coated with antibodies that can recognize and attach to proteins on the surface of cancer cells, Conrad told The Wall Street Journal.

Also, nanoparticles have been called upon to detect blood infections, chemist Chad Mirkin of Northwestern University writes for NOVANext. His company’s technology can even identifying the nasty bacteria causing the problem. 

But before Google’s pill can work, the company has to figure out what level of disease-related molecules floating through the blood is normal. They are already working on that with their "Baseline Study".

Conrad also assured the audience that Google won’t know everything about you: they plan to have other companies handle the nanotech’s gathered information.

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