Google is reportedly working on a pill that could potentially identify cancer, heart attacks and other illnesses, without resorting to painful and invasive surgery.
The pill was announced last week at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJD Live conference in Southern California by Google X employee Andrew Conrad. It works by combining magnetic nanoparticles with an organic antibody or protein. These attach to malignant cells, and “phone” back to a wearable device.
This wearable device would then analyze the spread of these nanoparticles and provide a diagnosis to the user, or the user’s medical professional.
The argument is that this system would change how diseases are diagnosed. The aim is that this would replace checkups and doctor visit with constant, proactive monitoring.
Curious about how Google’s “Nanoparticle Platform” will change the world of medicine? Read on!
Google isn’t a company one immediately associates with the healthcare industry.
Indeed, you’re more likely to associate them with Google Glass and self-driving cars rather than medical diagnostic technology. And yet, Google’s highly secretive X Labs are responsible for a great many innovations in the medical field. Their most notable product is a contact lens that can proactively monitor blood glucose levels.
This technology has since been licensed to Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis. Although it is still in development, it could potentially be prescribed to diabetics within the next few years.
So, what does Google get out of making medical devices? In an interview with Medium’s BackChannel, Andrew Conrad said “Healthcare is a huge problem, and it’s Google X’s mission to take on huge problems.”
But the joy of tackling this immensely challenging problem isn’t Google’s only goal.
Each year, close to $290 billion (USD) is spent worldwide on the treatment of cancer. This is a large, incredibly lucrative pie, and Google is eager to get a slice of it. But will they be able to create a product that is affordable and safe?
How Much Will These Nanoparticles Cost?
The medical industry is a surprisingly cost sensitive one.
If a drug or device costs too much, insurers and healthcare providers won’t support it. On the flip side, if developers charge too little, they could struggle to recoup the immense costs of developing the drug. It’s a tough line to walk.
So, will Google – or the company that licenses Google’s nanoparticle technology – be able to offer an affordable product? To answer that, we need to look at how it would work, and how nanotech products are built.
You could be forgiven for thinking that nanotechnology belongs in the domain of science fiction. Indeed, it sounds like something that is technologically improbable and not economically viable. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Nanotechnology is nothing short of ubiquitous. You can find it in everything from sportswear to consumer technologies, and it can be produced these days at a minimum cost.
The cheapest way to mass-produce nanoparticles is with something called a “plasma source system”. From Nanotechnology For Dummies:
“In a plasma source system, an inert gas, such as argon, flows into a chamber. This gas carries macroscopic particles of the material from which you want to produce nanoparticles. A high-power radio frequency signal applied to the carrier gas produces plasma, which then flows into a cooled chamber. The ions then condense into nanoparticles. This method is often used for volume production of metallic nanoparticles.”
Google’s nanoparticles contain a core made of iron oxide; something typical of most nanoparticles. These could feasibly be constructed using a plasma source system. But what about the ‘smart’ aspect of these particles?
In the same Medium interview, Andrew Conrad describes it as follows:
“The core of the nanoparticle is iron oxide. So you take all the little particles, you can’t see individual ones, but you take a spoonful of particles, and you throw it into a mix of almost a polymer, like paint, that coats the outside. And coating the outside of it makes it permissible to attach other things to the surface.”
Is there a precedent for painted nanoparticles? Well, yes. A 2012 study from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in West Bengal used nanoparticles coated with an amino acid to prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimers and Huntington’s Disease. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science showcased the use of nanoparticles in oil production.
Polymer coated nanoparticles are already routinely used in medical imaging (pictured above), showing that what Google is working on is possible. And for the most part, it can be done relatively cheaply. But is it safe?
Safety of Nanoparticles in Medicine
Convincing consumers that the nanoparticles they will be putting in their bodies are safe will be a tough sell for Google.
For the most part, the foundation of Google’s nanotechnology platform is tried and tested, and it is safe. In the Medium interview, Andrew Conrad said that there are no unexpected consequences of using nanoparticles.
But, what is the chance the nanoparticles will cause circulation problems for the users?
Pretty non-existent, actually. It’s true that the particles have to return to a central location in order to inform the wearable of medical findings. However, they’re so infinitesimally small, and they’re only recalled for a short amount of time, there’s next to no chance they could cause a problem. From the Medium interview:
No. Two thousand of them are the size of one red blood cell. You have millions and millions of red blood cells running through your wrist at any time. So if we are able to get all the nanoparticles that you take in that pill to collect in your wrist, maybe it would have some tiny effect. Also, there are super para-magnetic nanoparticles, they’re iron oxide. When you take the magnet away, they don’t retain their magnetism, they just disperse back into the wind. You bring them to your wrist for, let’s say, only an hour a day.
Is This The Future Of Medicine?
Although it’s in the early stages of development, Google has demonstrated that this technology can work. They’ve already been able to identify a marker of colon cancer, and continue to refine the product in order to eliminate the risk of false positives and to expand what diseases and cancers these nanoparticles can identify.
I’m hugely optimistic about this, but what do you think? Would you trust Google’s nanoparticles? Do you think this is the future of medical technology? Drop me a comment below, and let me know what you think.