Google is working on a technology to detect cancer and heart attack.
The technology combines disease-detecting nanoparticles, which would enter a patient’s bloodstream via a swallowed pill, with a wrist-worn sensor.
The idea is to identify slight changes in the person’s biochemistry that could act as an early warning system.
The work is still at an early stage.
Early diagnosis is the key to treating disease. Many cancers, such as pancreatic, are detected only after they have become untreatable and fatal.
There are marked differences between cancerous and healthy tissues.
Google’s ambition is to constantly monitor the blood for the unique traces of cancer, allowing diagnosis long before any physical symptoms appear.
The project is being conducted by the search company’s research unit, Google X, which is dedicated to investigating potentially revolutionary innovations.
It marks the company’s latest shift into the medical sector following its work on glucose-measuring contact lenses for patients with diabetes and the acquisition of a start-up that developed a spoon to counteract the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease.
Google has also bought stakes in Calico, an anti-ageing research company, and 23andMe, which offers personal genetic-testing kits.
The diagnostic project is being led by Dr. Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist who previously developed a cheap HIV test that has become widely used.
Google is designing a suite of nanoparticles which are intended to match markers for different conditions.
They could be tailored to stick to a cancerous cell or a fragment of cancerous DNA.
Or they could find evidence of fatty plaques about to break free from the lining of blood vessels. These can cause a heart attack or stroke if they stop the flow of blood.
Another set would constantly monitor chemicals in the blood.
High levels of potassium are linked to kidney disease. Google believes it will be possible to construct porous nanoparticles that alter color as potassium passes through.
Unattached nanoparticles would move differently in a magnetic field from those clumped around a cancer cell.
In theory, software could then provide a diagnosis by studying their movements.
As part of the project, the researchers have also explored ways of using magnetism to concentrate the nanoparticles temporarily in a single area.
The tech company’s ambition is ultimately to create a wristband that would take readings of the nanoparticles via light and radio waves one or more times a day.
The basic principles are sound and mirror the work already taking place around the world.
Many research groups are looking at bits of cancer floating in the blood as a better way of diagnosing the disease and also to assess which tumors are more aggressive.
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