In the latest of Google [X]’s announcements it’s now transpiring that they are developing nanotechnology that can detect warnings of cancer, heart attacks and other diseases in a person’s body. Early detection is the key to treating diseases, and Google [X] hopes their nanoparticle platform can revolutionise health awareness.

Nanotechnology – Simples!

The idea, as Andrew Conrad, Head of Life Sciences at Google [X], says, is simple. “You just swallow a pill with the nanoparticles in (they’re decorated with antibodies or molecules that detect other molecules), they course through your body, and because the core of these particles are magnetic, you can call them somewhere.” He cites the wrist as an ideal calling point, given the superficial veins close to the surface. Placing a magnet there would bring all the particles together, and they aim to develop a wristband that can not only recall these particles from around the body, but also extract data from them.

It should be noted that the pill will not be as big, weird, or dangerous as this recent experiment in ‘smart pills,’ as nanoparticles are so tiny, thousands of them could fit inside a blood cell (a blood cell is 8 thousandths of a millimetre).

The nanoparticle platform would ‘report’ on the human body. Swallowing a pill releases nano-field workers, circulating inside the body, collecting information. When called together by the boss-magnet, they share data and compile a report on this particular body. This report is sent to external software for interpretation and diagnostics.

Google [X] currently seem to be devoted to proffering innovative solutions in health tech, as seen in their recent projects like glucose-measuring contact lenses for diabetics and the Baseline study. Dr Conrad has called this latest project in nanotechnology “the nexus between biology and engineering,” the idea being to “functionalise” nanoparticles to make them “behave in ways that we want them to do,” to gain a greater awareness of our body’s health.

So how does it actually work?

You may be asking. Well, so far Google [X] can only speculate on what they can actually make these nanoparticles do – development is still in very early stages. However, here’s what we can glean so far:

  • There are marked differences between healthy tissues and damaged or cancerous ones. Google’s ambition is that the nanoparticles will be able to identify and target these differences, then attach themselves to the damaged cells.
  • There will be lots of differently programmed nanoparticles tailored to match different cell conditions. They could be built to stick to a fragment of cancerous DNA or a cancerous cell, seek out evidence of fatty plaques in blood vessels, or flag up high levels of potassium (linked to kidney disease). These would work alongside another set that will constantly monitor the blood for unique traces of cancer, ensuring the earliest possible diagnosis.
  • Then, if that wasn’t complicated enough to develop, the circulating nanoparticles will somehow be able to retain the data they pick up from around the body when called together by the magnetic wristband.
  • Finally, by some other amazing technical feat, the nanoparticles transmit their data using non-invasive detection methods like light or radio waves to the wristband, which can present the findings as readable measurements.

You may have picked up on the incredulous tone here, and sadly, it reflects those of experts in the field.

Live long and prosper?

Although the concept of the nanoparticle platform itself may be simple to understand, at this stage it is just that – a mere concept, and turning it into a reality will not be as simple. Following last week’s announcement sceptics have already come forward, citing the enormity of the work, the body’s natural defence against foreign objects and the slightly fantastical hopes of Google as issues – but this just highlights why these projects are known as ‘moonshots’.

Indeed, as Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, says, Google have described “an intent to do something, not a discovery or a pathway to get there.” He says that the technology is speculative, and at the moment the whole idea is basically “a good Star Trek episode.”

Another key concern is whether swallowing a pill of nanoparticles every day is all that safe. Developments in magnetic nanoparticle research for medical purposes have been going on for years, but a huge problem that comes up time and time again is their toxicity – hopefully Google [X] have something up their sleeves to solve this issue.

A Nano pill a day…

So, as we’ve come to expect from Google, their latest project is pretty ambitious. However, someone needs to be pushing the boundaries of health tech innovation, and it may as well be a company with the ideas and finances to support their endeavours.

If Google manage to pull this off (and within a decade they think they will) it could see a dramatic change in the way we interact with our healthcare providers. Conrad likened our current doctor-patient interactions as exploring Parisian culture by “flying a helicopter over Paris once a year,” whereas he believes the nanoparticle platform will allow “little particles go out and mingle with the people” in Paris, before being called back and asked “Hey, what did you see?” Essentially we wouldn’t need to go to the doctor and give blood or urine samples anymore; we’d simply swallow a pill to monitor our blood and upload the data into the cloud to send to our doctor. But could less face-to-face communication with your doctor really be a good thing?

The project is in exploratory phases for the time being, but Google [X] has already been talking about delivering medicine through the nanoparticle platform as well as abnormal cell detection. It seems the initial ideas are the focus for now though, and Conrad seems confident that they are firmly based in reality, saying: “we’ve done a number of promising experiments, so we’re going to keep going.”