Last night, Google announced what the Wall Street Journal says "may be its most ambitious and difficult science project ever." Baseline Study will try to create the most comprehensive picture of "what a healthy human being should be" by mapping personal genetic and molecular information. It will start with anonymous data from 175 people and then "thousands more," says the paper.
Large-scale medical and genomics studies are already out there, but Baseline's scope will collect "a much larger and broader set of new data," in order to emphasize prevention. Baseline is part of Google X, the corporation's skunkworks division. Andrew Conrad, the microbiologist running Baseline, told the Journal:
"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Dr. Conrad said. "That's not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like."
In a recent fireside chat, with billionaire Vinod Khosla, fellow billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin argued that they "need to know" much more than that in order to become a health company instead of a media company. Brin said health is "for sure" a bigger business, if only the high "regulatory burden in the U.S." wouldn't stop Google from saving lives.
To give an example, Page mentioned the privacy requirements in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Emphasis mine:
Imagine you had the ability to search people's medical records in the U.S.. Any medical researcher can do it. Maybe they have the names removed. Maybe when the medical researcher searches your data, you get to see which researcher searched it and why. I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year. Just that. That's almost impossible to do because of HIPPA. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end.
It's simple, really. If you can't data mine America's medical records, develop your own very unrestricted database:
The project won't be restricted to specific diseases, and it will collect hundreds of different samples using a wide variety of new diagnostic tools. Then Google will use its massive computing power to find patterns, or "biomarkers," buried in the information.
But if having a person's name removed from their medical data is something Page only "maybe" considers, why should you trust him? One doctor involved with the project emphasized monitoring by institutional review boards as per research standards. Google also says the data won't be shared with insurance companies. However, we have seen Google time and time again collect data for the purposes of a free public service, only to monetize it later.
Will they treat the molecules inside your cells different than the contents of your email or the terabytes of data collected from your thermostat?
In the future, this kind of data would be invaluable to insurers, who are always looking to reduce their risks. And more prosaic but chilling uses, such as prior to job interviews or marriage proposals, lurk in the background.
Marriage proposals. Right.
Is this a nefarious plan to sell your gene sequence to the highest bidder? No, it seems like Google genuinely wants to save lives for profit and has faith in itself to do the right thing with your data, which is even more alarming.
The healthcare discussion starts at 28:50:
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[Image via KhoslaVentures.com]