Where are all the nanoparticles? Google X marks the spot

29 Oct 2014

With its latest move in the medical-device sector, Google’s X division is working on a detector for major health conditions such as cancer and heart attacks through a combination of pills, paint and wristbands.

Following its recent acquisition of a start-up that developed a spoon to counteract the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, and its work on glucose-measuring contact lenses for patients with diabetes, the company’s Google X research division has firmly established itself in the med-tech sector. 

Google X’s latest project will see disease-detecting nanoparticles enter a patient’s bloodstream via a swallowed pill, with a wrist-worn sensor reading potential changes in a person’s biochemistry which could ultimately act as an early warning system.

According to Google, the nanoparticles would be designed to bind to a particular type of cell – such as a cancer tumour cell.

“This is done by ‘painting’ them with a substance that can interact with the surface of cells, and we’d paint on different substances depending on the target,” said the company. 

“They’d then travel together as a unit through the bloodstream. The core of the nanoparticles is magnetic, so a wearable device that creates a magnetic field can draw the particles – with their target cells in tow – toward it, where they can be detected and counted. We’re studying various non-invasive techniques, like light and radio waves, for detecting and counting the particles.”

Google X Life Sciences at work

This latest foray into med tech is being led by Andrew Conrad, head of Google X Life Sciences, where he oversees a number of projects at Google’s ‘moonshot’ factory and provides overall guidance on various scientific and hardware products and research.

“What we are trying to do is change medicine from reactive and transactional to proactive and preventative,” he told the BBC. “Nanoparticles … give you the ability to explore the body at a molecular and cellular level.”

High levels of potassium are linked to kidney disease. As reported in BBC’s take on the news, Google believes it will be possible to construct porous nanoparticles that alter colour as potassium passes through.

“Then (you can) recall those nanoparticles to a single location – because they are magnetic – and that location is the superficial vasculature of the wrist, (where) you can ask them what they saw,” said Conrad.

Google’s information harvest techniques have evolved significantly in recent years. Back in January, the company started working on a smart contact lens with an embedded circuit board that measures the glucose content of the wearer’s tears every second. At the time it was also exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

Google has also invested in Calico, an anti-ageing research company, and 23andMe, which offers personal genetic-testing kits.

Wearable tech image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic