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Google is developing a pill to detect early stage cancer and imminent heart attacks

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If you needed any further proof that Google is set to rule the world, the internet giant has just announced that it is working on a pill and a wearable device to detect early stage cancer, imminent heart attacks and other diseases.

Scientists at its Google X research lab are looking to develop nanoparticles - tiny magnetic particles that measure one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell - that would enter the body via a pill and then seek out and attach themselves to cells, proteins and molecules.

A magnetic wristband would then be worn to attract and count the nanoparticles, as a monitoring tool and early warning system. 

The idea is that a person would be alerted to even tiny changes in their body's biochemistry early on. Early diagnosis is key to combating disease; many cancers such as pancreatic and bowel cancer only present symptoms late on, meaning they are much more difficult to treat.

There are marked differences between cancerous and healthy tissues, so Google's aim is for its system to constantly monitor the blood for traces of cancer and other diseases, allowing diagnosis long before symptoms appear. 

The proposed system: nanoparticles detect symptoms of cancerous cell activity early on and pass on that information to a magnetic wristband (photos: Google/WSJ)

Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles

Google announced its ambitious project, known as the “Nanoparticle Platform” at The Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference in California this week. Its Google X research lab is dedicated to developing potentially revolutionary innovations.

Dr. Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at Google X, said he hoped the system would be rigorous and comprehensive enough to be used by the medical profession as a matter of course.

“Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system,” he said. “That is our dream.”

“Because the core of these particles is magnetic, you can call them somewhere,” he went on, in reference to the proposed wristband. “These little particles go out and mingle with the people, we call them back to one place, and we ask them: ‘Hey, what did you see? Did you find cancer? Did you see something that looks like a fragile plaque for a heart attack? Did you see too much sodium?”

Andrew Conrad

Google's Andrew Conrad announces the project this week

Industry experts told the WSJ that the proposed system is more than five years off being fully developed.

And critics are likely to raise questions of privacy over the use of medical data - although Dr. Conrad said Google would not collect or store data itself, and would instead pass it onto a licensed third party.

Self-driving cars and high-altitude balloons are other projects that have been developed by the Google X research lab, in an effort to expand its expertise and revenue far beyond online advertising.

Dr. Conrad, a molecular biologist, previously developed a cheap HIV test that has become widely used. 

“What we are trying to do is change medicine from reactive and transactional to proactive and preventative,” he told the BBC, of this latest system.

“Nanoparticles... give you the ability to explore the body at a molecular and cellular level.”

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