Swallowing a Pill to Detect Cancer Is Google's Latest Project

Tiny magnetic particles inside Google pill would travel in bloodstream in search of malignant cells, report back to wearable sensor device.

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Tuesday's Google Doodle fittingly celebrated 100th birthday of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine.
Tuesday's Google Doodle fittingly celebrated 100th birthday of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine.Credit: Screengrab

Google's latest "moonshot" project involves detecting cancer by swallowing a pill.

The pill is packed with tiny magnetic particles, which can travel through a patient's bloodstream, search for malignant cells and report their findings to a sensor device that you wear.

The project announced Tuesday is the latest effort by the Internet giant's X division, which tries to apply creative technology to solving big problems. The same division is also working on some of Google's other outlandish projects, like self-driving cars and contact lenses that can measure glucose in tears.

While still in it's early stages, Google says the microscopic "nanoparticles" can be coated with antibodies that bind with specific proteins or cells associated with various maladies. The particles would remain in the blood and report back continuously on what they find over time, said Andrew Conrad, head of life sciences at Google X, while a wearable sensor could track the particles by following their magnetic fields and collecting data on their movement through the body.

The goal is to get a fuller picture of the patient's health than the snapshot that's obtained when a doctor draws a single sample of blood for tests.

"We want to make it simple and automatic and not invasive," Conrad added. Like the contact lens project, he said Google is looking for ways to proactively monitor health and prevent disease, rather than wait to diagnose problems.

Conrad described the project during an appearance at a tech industry conference organized by the Wall Street Journal. He said the team working on the nanoparticle project includes a cancer specialist and other doctors, as well as electrical and mechanical engineers and an astrophysicist who has been advising on how to track the particles through the body.

Data from the sensor could be uploaded or stored on the Internet until it can be interpreted by a doctor, he said. That could raise questions about privacy or the security of patient data. But when asked if Google could use the information for commercial purposes, Conrad said, "We have no interest in that."

Google is looking for commercial partners who would bring the product to market and handle its practical uses. "Our partners would take care of all that stuff. We're the inventors and creators of the technology," he added.

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