What Is Health? Google Will Use Your Genetic Info To Find Out

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Autoimmune_Epidemic_1-1Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
Google has already conquered the Internet. Now, it’s turning its attention to the human body: “Project Baseline,” the latest endeavor announced by Google’s research division, Google X, was revealed Friday in the Wall Street Journal. Baseline will seek to analyze the genetic and molecular info of thousands of users to create the most accurate picture of human health yet.

The project's pilot study will collect bodily fluids (urine, saliva, blood, tears) and tissue samples from 175 healthy participants. Then, it will leverage Google’s (considerable) information processing power to find biomarkers, a.k.a. measurable indicators of biological states — for example, cholesterol levels or genetic mutations. Baseline's research team plans to examine everything from participants' heartbeat rates to their parents' genetic histories to how their bodies metabolize food and drugs. Eventually, the researchers hope to expand the project's database to include health information for thousands of people. The result: a medical study unprecedented in size and detail.

Because the majority of medical research has studied individuals who are already sick, most biomarkers currently measured by medical professionals indicate late-stage disease development. To head off disease years before it strikes, “You need to know what the fixed, well-running [human body] should look like," Baseline's lead researcher, Andrew Conrad, PhD, explained to the Wall Street Journal. By studying healthy people — and identifying exactly what makes them so — the project has the potential to guide modern medicine away from its reliance on treatment and toward a focus on prevention.

Given the nature of the (extremely personal) information the project will collect, the Baseline announcement immediately raised questions about participant privacy. Google stressed that all information will be anonymized and will not be shared for any non-medical purposes; samples will be collected by independent testing firms. Here's hoping Google makes good on its word, because Baseline could herald a monumental shift in medicine: from combating illness to promoting health.