Diagnostics: Nano-pill Googles Body

22. June 2015

In following up their data glasses for measuring blood sugar, Google is focussing on further diagnostic technologies. The forgers of innovation want to, by using nanoparticles and external devices, uncover diseases in their early stages – so it's time for another look behind the curtain at Google X.

Diagnosing diseases well before aggravating symptoms appear – this is a dream belonging equally to doctors and patients. Dr Andrew Conrad, head of the team Life Sciences in the Google X lab, now refers to noble objectives. Conrad, a biologist, wants to send magnetic nanoparticles on a search around our bodies looking for risk factors, in order to identify various illnesses. “Every test for which you seek a doctor should be replaced by this system”, says the research leader. His team not only has engineers, physicians, biologists and chemists working in it. Astrophysicists are also making their contribution. Such interdisciplinary solutions are nothing knew to Google. On the topic of nanomaterials this dates back through extensive previous work projects.

Small and clever

During recent years researchers have brought some central characteristics of the tiny particles into practical use. Ultrafine particles with a diameter of less than 0.1 micrometer have thus found their way into the bloodstream. From there they steer a path to various organ systems. Medical scientists have employed nanomaterials to enable the brain-blood barrier to be crossed. What’s more they attempt to provide liposomes with cell-specific surface structures; a further step on the path to targeted therapy. Special iron oxide particles are getting tested in studies on glioblastoma-therapy via hyperthermy. These publications are enough for Google to try developing a new concept: users swallowing capsules with the tiniest of particles within them. “The nanoparticles circulate in our entire bodies in pursuit of target structures”, Conrad explains. From biology he knows various principles which are at least theoretically suitable: with in-situ hybridisation gene probes bind to complementary sections of the genetic tissue. Fluorescence in-situ hybridisation (FISH) employs special, fluorescent dyes. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISAs) also work based on optical properties such as light and fluorescence.

One clever armband

The second element of this innovative principle: if the magnetic nanoparticles discover potentially dangerous structures, they become activated. The firm does not wish to make details known, so much however is understood: “We gather the particles together and ask them what they have seen“, Conrad explains it in very simplified terms. It works this way: an armband communicates with the particles in the bloodstream and measures the fluorescence or whichever other optical property it may be. The procedure is well suited to many conditions – from degenerated cells to single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are associated with elevated risks. Google mentions cancer conditions, strokes or heart attacks, where the spectrum can be almost expanded at will. From a health-economic standpoint, metabolic illnesses – first and foremost Type-2-diabetes – are a particularly interesting area. The quicker the better.

Brave new world

Andrew Conrad hopes to have a new diagnostic system to present in a few years – experts who are not part of Google estimate one decade of research and development. Only with great expenditure can arms, for instance, be manufactured with synthetic and real skin, so as to investigate the optical data transfer between particles and the armband in-vitro. Google researchers are working just on this. They expect big differences depending on skin thickness and pigmentation. The system is, according to Conrad, still “at an early stage”; the journey is “long and hard”. Another challenge is to overcome the so-called protein corona: When small particles make it into our blood, the body responds by placing a protective protein shell around the intruders. Something which makes biological sense is diagnostically undesirable.

Research projects have been running for some time, but beyond the boundaries of Google’s secret laboratory. Currently, scientists cannot answer the question of whether diagnostic nanoparticles themselves also cause disease. There are at least indications of this which are being pursued by experts. In individuals with cardiovascular ailments, the disease worsens when exposed to nanoparticles from diesel exhaust. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also reported of possible genetic damage. Given these uncertainties, there exists a plan to provide NanoTools first to patients with risk factors (this includes them having a family medical history for a given condition) as a meaningful method of early diagnosis. The fact is that Google sees the new bracelet primarily being used in health professional environments – and not being sold directly to laymen. Potential misdiagnoses can thus be quickly eliminated from the world. On the topic of data protection, there are so far no details.

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