No, it’s not a new ‘hipster-esque’ band name, Google [x] is the research arm of Google, responsible for things like Google Glass, driver-less cars and Google Contact Lenses; the Baseline Study is their latest and greatest project – tackling one of the major mysteries of the human world, the human body.

Gray area?

Gray’s anatomy – considered to be one of the most influential books in the study of the human body, could be considered as the beta version of this particular Google project. Through this book, people could see anatomically correct drawings and explanations of parts of the human body. It was initially written as a cheaper and more accessible text book for students but is now (in its 40th edition) revered as not only a piece of history but still a very relevant (it’s been updated through the years) text book for students and professionals alike.

While this book gave a huge insight into how the human body looks on the inside, Google’s aim is to show us not just how the human body looks but also how it works for healthy humans and also for humans with different conditions and diseases, giving us a huge insight into just how the body is affected by these things.

Shoot for the moon

Hailed by some as one of Google’s most difficult projects ever undertaken, others see this project (known as a ‘moonshot’) as a step backwards for a company that is largely about the development of technology. However, the aim of this study is to become a prevention rather than a cure, that is, we should know what a body in perfect working order looks like so that indicators (or biomarkers) of potential problems can be found ahead of any likely issues and then treat those issues. “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.” says Dr Conrad, who is running the early stages of the project.

Ten things you should know about the Baseline Study:

  • They’re starting with a small test group of 175 people to begin with, later moving on to thousands of people.
  • The initial tests involve samples of blood, saliva, urine and tears.
  • When the pilot study is complete the main study will contain details like genetic history, how food is metabolised and how their heart beats under stress.
  • The study is completely anonymous, so no personal information will be attached to the body data.
  • This is not an overnight project, it will take a long time to get to anywhere near a complete stage.
  • It is likely that participants will wear the Google contact lens to measure blood glucose levels.
  • Google is developing wearable technology to complement this study so they can monitor the subjects effectively.
  • The same study failed ten years ago because the costs were too high, sequencing the human genome did cost $100 million but now comes in at around $1000 (bargain!).
  • This project isn’t about commercial gain (unlike other projects), but about Google’s main mission ‘organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful…’
  • A miniaturised man in a space ship is not going to be injected into the subjects, like in 1987 movie ‘Innerspace’ (although that would be kind of cool).

The collection and study of body data is not a new concept, and one that life sciences and pharma companies as well as hospitals and universities are chasing. The possibilities for research and development are huge and will inform best practice for treatment and management of conditions and hold a more complete picture of the body as a whole, not just the parts affected by illness.

Google can probably take a lot more for this project from the ‘self quantifiers’ than they may think; many seem keen to share their vital stats through apps and their health/sickness experiences through forums and blogs, so there are probably a lot of clues to indicators for conditions out there already. Regardless, this is an exciting project with endless possibilities and if Google don’t use this for commercial gain as they claim then maybe they aren’t a force for evil as some may think.