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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Google’s goal is to build a genomics database to facilitate early diagnosis and prevention of life-threatening diseases; may give pathologists a new diagnostic tool

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is preparing to build a human genome database that it says may become the world’s biggest. The company plans to also assemble other medical information, including clinical laboratory test data, as it pursues plans to become a player in the market for healthcare Big Data.

This work will be done by Google X Life Sciences, a new business for Google. The project is known as the Baseline Study.

Baseline to Benefit from Information Collected by 23andMe and Calico

The research team consists of 70 to 100 biomedical scientists and is led by Andrew Conrad, Ph.D.. He is a molecular biologist who pioneered cheap, high-volume tests for HIV in blood-plasma donations.

The Google X Baseline Study has started by collecting anonymous genetic and molecular information from 175 individuals. It expects to add thousands more genetic profiles over time, noted a report published by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

This project will also benefit from genome data collected by 23andMe, Inc., of Mountain View, California. 23andMe co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who now serves as Google’s Director of Special Projects.

Some observers believe that Google X may also want to merge the medical information assembled by Calico—or the California Life Company—into the Baseline Study database. Calico is another Google health enterprise and is collecting and analyzing genetic information on people who live to be 100 years old and healthy.

The goal of this effort is to discover the fountain of youth. (See Dark Daily, “Google’s Calico Start-up to Sequence Whole Human Genomes of Healthy 100-Year-Olds in Project to Solve Puzzle of Human Aging”, March 26, 2014.)

Baseline to Identify Biomarkers for Killer Diseases

The Baseline Study is the most ambitious and complex science project to be tackled by Google. This project hopes to create a complete picture of a healthy human’s genome while, at the same time, identifying genetic biomarkers for early detection of killer diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, noted the WSJ article.

The objective of creating such an extensive genetic database is to help physicians predict the onset of such diseases earlier than is now possible. Ultimately this knowledge may allow medicine to move away from simply treating disease to an era of prevention.

“With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems, Google X Project Manager Conrad told the WSJ. “That’s not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really want to be proactive what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like,” he observed.

Pictured left to right, Google X Life Sciences leader Andrew Conrad, Ph.D., explains to colleagues Alberto Vitari and Marija Pavloic uses for some of the instruments in his team’s biomedical research lab. (Photo copyright Google)

Pictured left to right, Google X Life Sciences leader Andrew Conrad, Ph.D., explains to colleagues Alberto Vitari and Marija Pavloic uses for some of the instruments in his team’s biomedical research lab. (Photo copyright Google)

To develop a complete picture of each participant’s genomic makeup, Baseline will map participants’ entire genomes, their parents’ genetic histories, fluctuating heart rates, metabolism, and how chemical reactions change their genetics’ behavior, noted an article published by The Motley Fool

Baseline to Use Google Computing Power to Find Disease Biomarkers

The project isn’t limited to specific diseases. It will collect hundreds of different samples and will utilize a wide variety of new diagnostic tools. Google will then use its massive computing muscle to find patterns and clinically relevant biomarkers that are buried in the information, noted the WSJ article.

What distinguishes the Baseline Study is the fact that, to date, sick subjects were the focus of studies that looked for biomarkers associated with specific diseases. Therefore, biomarkers identified by these studies are related to late-stage diseases, noted Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, M.D., Chair of the Department of Radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Gambhir and Conrad have worked together for more than a year to design Baseline to reveal biomarkers that could not only help detect life-threatening diseases early, but also identify people at high risk for certain diseases. This would allow physicians and researchers to intervene to prevent onset of disease.

Examples of How New Biomarkers Could Improve Health

The WSJ story explained, for example, how Baseline could discover a biomarker that identifies people who break down fatty foods efficiently, thereby reducing their potential for high cholesterol and heart disease and allowing them to live a long, healthy life. By using that biomarker to identify those individuals who lack this trait, physicians could identify individuals who are most likely to develop high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, and ultimately succumb to stroke or heart attack.

This knowledge would allow physicians to intervene and help these individuals modify behavior to prevent a health crisis or sudden death, explained the WSJ story. Use of such biomarkers in this fashion could also help researchers develop a new treatment to help those lacking this biomarker to break down fatty foods efficiently.

Illumina’s HiSeqX Ten Could Speed Advancement of Baseline’s Results

Conrad and Gambhir admit that the project is a giant leap into the unknown. They note that the human body is complex and little is known about the interplay between DNA, enzymes, and proteins. As well, little is known about how environmental factors, such as diet and lifestyle, influence these processes.

Conrad expects to make advances in “little increments,” Gambhir told the WSJ. “He gets that this is not a software project that will be done in one or two years. We used to talk about curing cancer and doing this in a few years. We’ve learned to not say those things anymore,” he added.

Breakthroughs like Illumina Inc.’s (NASDAQ:ILMN) new HiSeqX Ten, which has the ability to sequence an entire human genome for just $1,000, however, could speed expansion of the Baseline database. Sequencing a whole genome cost $250,000 less than a decade ago, but is expected to become a more common test at today’s lower prices. (See Dark Daily, “Illumina Asserts Its Claim of a $1,000 Whole Human Genome, But Is Gene Sequencing Ready for Use by Clinical Pathology Laboratories?”, April 21, 2014.)

Privacy Issues and HIPAA May Limit Baseline Database Applications

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will find debate over the ethics of using data accumulated in the Baseline project. The database would be searchable and contain information about the molecular structure of thousands of individuals.

This is bound to raise privacy and regulatory issues, particularly considering Google is the largest search engine in the world. While Google has declared that the results of Baseline will remain anonymous and only be used for medical purposes, the federal government will definitely be concerned about Google amassing a huge database of people’s genetic information, noted The Motley Fool story.

Privacy requirements of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability of Act (HIPAA) would prevent Google from ever mining Baseline data for commercial purposes. Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page recently expressed his concerns about missing “really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end” in healthcare due to HIPAA rules during an interview at the Khosla Ventures CEO Summit.

This also means that Baseline’s data will never be connected to consumer products like Google Fit, Android devices or Google Glass. But if merged with Calico, Baseline’s information could be shared with the biopharmaceutical industry to accelerate development of gene-targeted treatments.

What Pathologists and Medical Labs Can Expect from Genome Ventures

In the short term, the odds are low that research by Google X’s Baseline Study or other biomedical ventures like it will produce important breakthroughs that can trigger the development of new medical laboratory tests. What is true is that every effort to assemble a large database of human genomic data is helping researchers develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between an individual’s unique genome and a growing number of diseases and health conditions.

—By Patricia Kirk

Related Information:

Why Google Wants to Map Your Body With Its Baseline Study

Is Illumina’s $1,000 Genome a Realty? Not for Clinical Laboratory Purposes, Asserts an In Vitro Diagnostics Expert

23andMe, Inc. 11/22/13-FDA Warning Letter

Google’s Calico Start-up to Sequence Whole Human Genomes of Healthy 100-Year-Olds in Project to Solve Puzzle of Human Aging

Google’s New Moonshot Project: the Human Body

Baseline Study to Try to Create Picture From the Project’s Findings

Fireside chat with Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Meet the Google X Life Sciences Team


Establishment of a New Company to start genome information platform business