Google launches an extraordinary genetic study

Google has begun a study that involves collecting body fluids and other genetic material from 175 participants.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is attempting to create “the fullest picture of what a healthy human being should be.”

The project, Baseline Study, is a prototype for future, much larger studies. It’s headed by molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, a member of Google X, Google’s “secretive” research lab. Once it has the information it needs, Google will look for patterns in the data, or biomarkers, that could help medical researchers detect diseases earlier.

Baseline Study began this summer, when a clinical testing firm (Google wouldn’t say which one) started collecting urine, blood, saliva and tears from enrolled study participants.

The study also will collect tissue samples from the participants, who won’t be identifiable by name or Social Security number once their information is sent from the testing firm to Google.

Dr. Conrad and his team plan to design an expanded study — one that surveys thousands of people — with the medical schools of Duke and Stanford universities.

From the WSJ report:

The clinic in the pilot study, and later similar clinics run by Duke and Stanford, will recruit volunteers for Baseline. Lead investigators at these facilities, who are not Google employees, will collect the samples and remove information that is typically used to identify participants, such as names and Social Security numbers.

Once the data has been made anonymous, Google and other researchers will get access to it, the company said.

The information will include participants' entire genomes, their parents' genetic history as well as information on how they metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast their hearts beat under stress and how chemical reactions change the behavior of their genes.

The WSJ noted that the project raises some privacy concerns, such as the risk of insurers and employers accessing people’s genetic information.

But Dr. Sam Gambhir, chairman of Stanford’s radiology department, told the WSJ that Google will not be given “free rein” to do whatever it wants with the data.

Baseline’s team hopes to learn the genetic characteristics that help some people avoid serious diseases, to which others are more vulnerable.

Reach Molly Duerig at 724-799-4098 or at mollyduerig@gmail.com.