October 29, 2014

Google X’s latest moonshot: trying to develop nanoparticles that can identify cancer and other illnesses

Google’s ambition to cure death is beginning to take shape in a new product from its Google X division. Andrew Conrad, the head of the company’s life sciences division, today announced the details of an effort that would use nanotechnology to identify signs of disease. The project would employ tiny magnetic nanoparticles, said to be one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell, to bind themselves to various molecules and identify them as trouble spots.

Google’s nanotechnology project, which would also involve a wearable magnetic device that tracks the particles, is said to be at least five years off, according to an accompanying report in the Wall Street Journal. The company is still figuring out how many nanoparticles are necessary to identify markers of disease, and scientists will have to develop coatings for the particles that will let them bind to targeted cells. One idea is to deliver the nanoparticles via a pill that you would swallow.


More than 100 Googlers are now working on the project. “We’re trying to stave off death by preventing disease,” Conrad said on stage at WSJD Live. “Fundamentally, our foe is death. Our foe is unnecessary death. Because we have the technology to intervene, and we should expend more energy and effort on it.”

Nanoparticles inside the body will be subject to heavier regulation than a device that uses them outside the body. Google will have to prove to the FDA that their method is safe and effective in large, controlled clinical trials. To do that, they will first have to determine a dose of nanoparticles for use, which the company has not yet done.

The idea behind using nanoparticles to catch cancer and other illnesses is pretty simple. Cancer cells often express proteins or sugars not found on healthy cells; a nanoparticle with a coating that binds cancer-only cells could be a useful tool for diagnosing the disease. There are two barriers here: the first is our knowledge of cancer-specific proteins or sugars; the second is finding out what coatings they would bind to.


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