An episode of the ‘80s Twilight Zone television series explores the fateful caprice of time when a young writer finds a library filled with the stories of individual human lives, tempting her to read — and ultimately rewrite — her own book. The impulse to record, measure, and analyze becomes deeply ingrained in society as children are raised to take tests, to compete, to win. Now, Google is searching thousands of genomes to define no less than optimum human health.
The company’s “Google X wing” research team is conducting the Baseline Study to scour the genomes of 175 volunteers at Duke and Stanford Universities for molecular and genetic markers to compare with corresponding medical records. The project seeks to upturn a couple of dominant medical paradigms, including a focus on preventing illness rather than merely reacting to it. New wisdom gleaned through the study might also allow medical researchers to better detect health and illness trends across populations, rather than merely within individuals.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, known for developing improved HIV tests for blood plasma donations, has assembled a multidisciplinary staff of 70-100 experts in physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging, and molecular biology. The researchers hope to discover biomarkers to improve diagnostic testing for major illnesses — before they threaten one’s health.
"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Conrad told he WSJ. "That's not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like."
However, Conrad downplayed expectations for immediate development of diagnostics and treatments based on the new information, saying progress would be made in “little increments,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Still, the analysis of data sets that exist today — proprietary information guarded jealously by medical companies — could identify patterns medical science is not presently seeing, according to Google cofounder Sergey Brin. At a conference in early July, the entrepreneur lamented a health care marketplace “so heavily regulated that it’s just a painful business to be in.”
Google says it's now collecting the health data of its initial group of volunteers — anonymously.