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Google Wants to Create a Map of What a Healthy Human Body Looks Like

Illustration for article titled Google Wants to Create a Map of What a Healthy Human Body Looks Like

It's the ultimate baseline study — an effort to collect the fullest picture of what a healthy human being should look like.


The project, which is in its early stages, is being run by Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist known for developing affordable, high-volume tests for HIV in blood-plasma donations. His team now consists of nearly 100 experts from fields such as physiology, biochemistry, optics, imaging, and molecular biology.

Called the Baseline Project, it's different from other mass medical and genomic projects in that it's seeking to collect much larger and broader sets of new data. The ultimate goal is to make medicine more preventative. To get there, the researchers will collect anonymous genetic and molecular information from 175 people, and eventually thousands.


"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," notes Conrad in the Wall Street Journal. "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."

Indeed, and as the name of the project suggests, they're looking to create a "baseline" of a healthy human being. Armed with this data, physicians will be able to steer a person's medical treatments towards what's considered healthy. Google X says the project won't be restricted to specific diseases. The researchers will be able to utilize Google's massive computing power to find patterns, or "biomarkers," contained in the information. An example of a biomarker could be the genetic sequences responsible for breaking down fatty foods efficiently.

Google claims that the information from Baseline will be anonymous, limited to medical and health purposes, and not shared with insurance companies. The WSJ explains more:

Still, the idea that Google would know the structure of thousands of people's bodies—down to the molecules inside their cells—raises significant issues of privacy and fairness. In the future, this kind of data would be invaluable to insurers, who are always looking to reduce their risks. And more prosaic but chilling uses, such as prior to job interviews or marriage proposals, lurk in the background.

Baseline will be monitored by institutional review boards, which oversee all medical research involving humans. Once the full study gets going, boards run by the medical schools at Duke University and Stanford University will control how the information is used.

"That's certainly an issue that's been discussed," said Dr. Gambhir. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data."


The project is already underway, and they're already collecting such things as urine, blood, saliva, and tears. They're even planning on using a smart contact lens to monitor glucose levels.

This initiative is another example of Google's attempt to enter into the health-care sector, the other prominent project being Calico — an effort to extend healthy human lifespan.


On the surface, this project makes a lot of sense. When it comes to preventing the onset of certain diseases, it's clear that we need to identify the causal biological 'deviations.'


But it's important that this research not be taken too far, particularly for socially-constructed diseases, which often take psychological form. Moreover, human health is a normative concept that moves along a dynamic baseline; what's considered healthy today may not be considered as such tomorrow. Lastly, and for completeness, the researchers will have to take environmental, lifestyle, and epigenetic factors into consideration — no easy task.


Read the entire article at the WSJ.

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The major medical research institutions in Sweden are already doing something similar: Lifegene collects data about hundreds of thousands of swedes, both through medical examinations and detailed surveys, over the span of several years. One of the purposes is to establish a baseline of how healthy/unhealthy the swedish population is.