Google's Baseline Study aims to model the chemistry of a healthy human body -- and unlock new clues to curing disease.
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Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible may soon get under your skin, if you're among the 175 people who will be providing the company with their precious bodily fluids.
Google has embarked on a project called Baseline Study to develop a model -- a "biochemical fingerprint" -- of the chemistry of a healthy human body. The goal of the project is to be able to identify deviations from the norm that signal the onset of adverse health conditions and to improve our understanding of human physiology.
The project is being led by molecular biologist Dr. Andrew Conrad under the auspices of Google X, the company's "moonshot" research group.
"It may sound counter-intuitive, but by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease," said Conrad in a statement. "This research could give us clues about how the human body stays healthy or becomes sick, which could in turn unlock insights into how diseases could be better detected or treated."
Google's involvement in the project allows researchers to employ the company's vast computational power for data processing and storage. The researchers will also benefit from the plummeting cost of genomic sequencing, which cost $100 million in 2002 and now costs about $1,000.
After the pilot group of 175 provides fluid and tissue samples for analysis, researchers at Duke University and Stanford University plan to expand the project to include thousands of participants.
Google declined to provide specific details about the privacy and data use terms agreed to by its research subjects. The pilot study has been reviewed and approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is independent from Google. The research data will be under the stewardship of the principal investigator, not Google. A person familiar with the project's data handling requirements insists that the data will be anonymized and will not be accessible to insurance companies in any event.
Despite its euthanization of Google Health on January 1, 2012, Google appears to be unable to resist the health business. In part, that's a consequence of the tech industry's focus on wearable devices, which through bodily contact lend themselves to health monitoring. Google's return to the heath business began earlier this year with the launch of Google Fit, the company's platform for fitness data and devices.
Google's interest in health also arises from the value of health data and from the utility of cloud computing for sifting data. Also, one of the company's two founders, Sergey Brin, who oversees Google X, has expressed personal interest in health issues.
Google says its motives are altruistic. "This research is intended as a contribution to science," the company insists. "It's not intended to generate a new product at Google." The company says it will make its study and the resulting data available to qualified health researchers and allows for the possibility that its findings could suggest future projects at Google or at other health and technology companies.
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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio