Google’s Newest Search: Cancer Cells

Google said its nanoparticles, less than one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell, would seek out and attach themselves to cells, proteins or other molecules inside the body. The company also is working on a wearable device with a magnet to attract and count the particles, as a monitoring tool.

The goal is to provide an early warning system for cancer and other diseases, with an eye toward more effective treatment.

“Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system,” said Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at the Google X research lab, who disclosed the project on Tuesday at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference. “That is our dream.”

The reality is likely more than five years off, industry experts say, and faces huge challenges, both technical and social. Researchers have to identify coatings that will help the particles bind to specific cells. And Google doesn’t yet know how many nanoparticles would be needed for the system to work.

What’s more, the wearable device needs to be small enough to be unobtrusive but to accommodate a battery that doesn’t need frequent recharging.

Google may deliver the nanoparticles in a pill that would be swallowed. Such a system would face “a much higher regulatory bar than conventional diagnostic tools,” said Chad A. Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University and a founder of three medical nanotechnology companies.

Beyond the technical and regulatory hurdles are social concerns, including privacy. The notion of Google monitoring a human body around the clock is likely to worry critics who complain the company already has access to too much information.

Dr. Conrad said Google won’t collect or store medical data itself. Instead, Google plans to license the technology to others who will handle the information and its security.

The initiative is part of Google’s broader efforts to expand beyond online advertising into new areas. Many of these projects are run by the Google X research lab, including self-driving cars, high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet and the Glass wearable computer.

The Google X Life Sciences team wants to harness data to make medicine more proactive, rather than reactive. Its Baseline study is building a detailed picture of a healthy human being, by genetically screening samples from thousands of people. It also is working on a smart contact lens to measure glucose in the tears of diabetes patients.

The nanoparticle project involves more than 100 Google employees drawn from disciplines including astrophysics, chemistry and electrical engineering. Google won’t say how much it is spending on the project.

Proponents believe nanotechnology has great promise in medicine, but so far it has produced few successful commercial products. The U.S. government has invested more than $20 billion in nanotechnology research since 2001, including about $4.3 billion from health-related agencies.

Nanosphere Inc., founded based on a 2000 paper from Dr. Mirkin’s lab, markets nano-based diagnostic tests that can quickly screen blood, saliva and urine for causes of infection. But its products have been slow to catch on. The company’s shares are down 98% from their high following a 2007 initial public offering.

Another company based on Dr. Mirkin’s research, closely held AuraSense Therapeutics LLC, is using nanotechnology to create globular forms of DNA designed to treat cancer and other diseases. Bill Gates and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt are among its investors.

T2 Biosystems Inc. uses nanoparticles in blood tests outside the body that detect candida infections. In September, the company won approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market tests for blood infections.

Bind Therapeutics Inc. is in clinical trials to test nanoparticles inside the body to deliver drugs that target diseases like cancer. It uses special coatings and a targeting molecule on the particles to direct them to their goal, such as tumor tissue.

Google is employing a similar idea to use nanoparticles inside the body, not to deliver drugs, but for continuous testing and monitoring, said Robert Langer, a nano-medicine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-founded T2 and Bind.

Google said it has made progress on creating the tiny iron-oxide particles, and identifying the coatings that would make them bind to cells. Dr. Conrad said Google is hoping to paint its nanoparticles with an antibody that recognizes and latches on to a protein on the surface of tumor cells.

Google is at least five to seven years away from a product approved for use by doctors, said Sam Gambhir, chairman of radiology at Stanford University Medical School, who has been advising Dr. Conrad on the project for more than a year.

Even if Google can make the system work, it wouldn’t immediately be clear how to interpret the results. That is why Dr. Conrad’s team started the Baseline study, which he hopes will create a benchmark for comparisons.

“We need to know the healthy levels of these disease-carrying molecules in the blood,” Dr. Conrad said, “and we don’t know now.”

—Rolfe Winkler contributed to this article.

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