Google may be best known for search and its crazy employee perks, but the company is constantly cooking up far-out, big-picture, enormously ambitious projects. Self-driving cars? Check. Face computers (i.e. Google Glass)? Double check. Contact lenses that measure glucose levels in a wearers' tears? Google's on it.
Now comes word of another moonshot project from the company's Google X division: an ingestible disease-detecting pill containing thousands of microscopic magnetic particles that course through a person's bloodstream in search of malignant cells, according to the Associated Press. If the nanoparticles find an early indication of a disease, they send out signals that can be picked up by a wearable device.
While the pill is still in its experimental stage – the company has said it could take up to 10 years for the pill to be prescribed, the AP reports – this technology has the potential to dramatically transform the way we diagnose and treat a host of diseases, most notably cancer.
Think about it. Many times, a pathogen is deadly because it goes undetected until the damage is widespread enough to cause noticeable side-effects. Early alerts that can identify malignant cells as they form have the potential to stop serious diseases in their tracks, before they have the time to wreak irreversible havoc.
In an interview with Medium Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences at Google X, explained why our current strategy for treating serious diseases, particularly cancer, is fundamentally backwards:
Some cancers have ninety percent success rate if you diagnose them in early stage one. 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.
Google's pill aims to change the strategy from reactive to proactive -- adopting a "preventative maintenance" approach – by continuously monitoring the body for disease triggers, so they can be identified and treated as soon as they appear.
“Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system,” Conrad said yesterday at the WSJD Live Conference. “That is our dream.”
It's a beautiful one. For now, however, the project remains exactly what its name implies: a moonshot, although one that has the potential to save many, many lives.