Google nanoparticles could enable early diagnosis of cancer and heart attacks

Google is attempting to develop a pill that would send microscopic particles into the bloodstream in an effort to identify cancers, imminent heart attacks, and other diseases.

Andrew Conrad, the head of life sciences inside the company’s Google X research lab, revealed the project on Tuesday morning at a conference here in Southern California. According to Conrad, the company is fashioning nanoparticles—particles about one billionth of a meter in width—that combine a magnetic material with antibodies or proteins that can attach to and detect other molecules inside the body. The idea is that patients will swallow a pill that contains these particles, and after they enter the bloodstream—attempting to identify molecules that would indicate certain health problems—a wearable device could use their magnetic cores to gather them back together and read what they’ve found.

Google’s ambition is to constantly monitor the blood for the unique traces of cancer, allowing diagnosis long before any physical symptoms appear.

Known as the “Nanoparticle Platform,” the project is part of a wider effort inside Google to develop new technologies capable of improving healthcare. “Google X’s job is to take on big problems, to try to find clever solutions to big problems, and one of the problems we decided to tackle was healthcare,” Conrad said. “The way in which we envision doing this is inverting the paradigm in medicine—which is currently reactive and episodic—to a new paradigm that is proactive and cumulative.” As Conrad put it, this involves building “gizmos” that can monitor your health in new ways.

In January, for instance, the company unveiled a contact lens that would let diabetics monitor blood glucose levels through the tears in their eyes. As with this contact lens, Google does not intend to sell its nanoparticle pills and accompanying wearables. Instead, it will work with third party medical companies to bring the technology to market.