Google is developing a cancer and heart attack-detecting pill

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New ‘nanoparticle’ pill could detect signs of disease before it becomes a problem for pre-emptive treatment, monitored by a wrist-worn device.

Google’s new pill could detect the presence of cancer cells in the body before they become a problem. Photograph: Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Dr. Stan/Getty Images/Visuals Unlimited
Google’s new pill could detect the presence of cancer cells in the body before they become a problem. Photograph: Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Dr. Stan/Getty Images/Visuals Unlimited

Google is working on a nanoparticle pill that could identify cancers, heart attacks and other diseases before they become a problem.

The pill would contain magnetic particles approximately 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These tiny particles will have antibodies or proteins attached to them that detect the presence of “biomarker” molecules inside the body that indicate diseases such as cancer or an imminent heart attack.

“Essentially the idea is simple; you just swallow a pill with the nano particles, which are decorated with antibodies or molecules that detect other molecules,” explained Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences inside the Google’s “moonshot” X research lab to WSJD Live conference in California Tuesday. “They course through your body and because the cores of these particles are magnetic, you can call them somewhere and ask them what they saw.”

‘Hey, what did you see?’

Conrad explained that the particles would be analogous to sending thousands of doctors down into the population of a large city to monitor what is going on with individuals, describing current medical techniques as having one doctor fly over the city it in a helicopter trying to see what’s causing issues with individual people.

“If you look at your wrist you can see these superficial veins – just by putting a magnet there you can trap [the nanoparticles],” Conrad said explaining that a wrist-worn device like a smartwatch could be used to read what the particles have detected on their trip through the blood stream.

“We ask them: Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium?” said Conrad.

The system known as the “nanoparticle platform” is Google’s latest venture into the lucrative health market, which is worth around 10% of the economy of developed nations. More than £100bn a year is spent on the National Health Service in Britain.

Pre-emptive rather than reactive

It is part of the move away from reactive medicine, which treats diseases once they have become serious enough to cause symptoms for patients prompting them to go and see a doctor and towards pre-emptive medicine, which catches signs of disease much earlier, before it becomes a problem.

Pre-emptive or proactive medicine will require new ways of monitoring the normal health of individuals so that changes, even small ones, can be detected. Google’s “Baseline” health study unveiled in July is part of this effort and another project from Google’s X lab, which now has a team of around 100 scientists, including Conrad, who was the chief scientific officer of a diagnostics lab firm LabCorp, which previously developed a cheap test for HIV.

The work is at very early stages – Google currently hasn’t discovered how many nanoparticles would be required to make the system effective and has to develop coatings for the particles that help them bind to cells to detect issues. The scheme is being made public as Google is now seeking partners to take the technology forward.

Conrad said it would not be Google operating the technology, and that the search giant would not be the one with access to the data collected by the nanoparticles. Instead it would be the patients doctors, hospitals and medical equipment companies that take the technology on.

“It’d be like saying GE is in control of your X-ray,” quipped Conrad. “We are the creators of the tech and they are the disseminators.”

Nanotechnology is a new field in medical science, which has promised to help combat disease including cancer. But nanoparticles potentially pose a risk to the health of individuals and the environment if not carefully controlled, which could build up and cause unintended consequences in unexpected places both inside the body and in the wider environment.

Medical applications of new diagnostic technologies like this are highly regulated, and Google could face tough challenges in proving the safety and efficacy of the nanoparticle platform. It is highly likely that a medical company would partner with Google to take the technology to the next step, but that next step is likely to be more than five years away according to industry experts.

One of Google’s previous X lab projects, a “smart” contact lens capable of monitoring the signs of diabetes, was licensed by Swiss drug firm Novartis in July to develop the technology into a practical medical application.

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