Google's 'Fantastic Voyage' into the human bloodstream

By Eric Wicklund
08:04 AM

Google "Fantastic Voyage" and you'll get details on a 1966 movie in which scientists in a mini-submarine are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a patient's blood stream to save his life.

That could also describe Google's latest foray into mHealth – an eerie venture that might just prove the adage that life imitates art.

The company that brought us Google Glass is now working on microscopic particles that, when injected into a patient's bloodstream, could detect cancer and other medical conditions.

As described by Andrew Conrad, who helms the life sciences division of the Google X research lab, the particles – less than one billionth of a meter, or one-thousandth the size of a red blood cell – would be steered toward certain parts of the body through magnetic wearable devices. Those devices would be able to track the particles and gather data for healthcare providers. When their job is completed, the nanoparticles would then be expelled from the body through urine.

Conrad said Google would license the "Nanoparticle Platform" technology to others and wouldn't have any control over the information collected.

“Because the core of these particles is magnetic, you can call them somewhere,” Conrad said in an interview with Wired, indicating that you could use a wearable device to gather them in the superficial veins on the inside of your wrist. “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?”

In news reports, Conrad said the particles – still at least five years from full development – could be used to detect cancer, plaque and sodium levels and other items in the blood stream, quite possibly replacing the standard blood test. They would be developed as pills that, when dissolved in the body, would attach to molecules, proteins and cells in the body.

This announcement marks the online giant's latest venture in mHealth. Earlier this year, the company unveiled plans to develop a contact lens that would detect blood sugar levels in tears for the diabetic market. More recently, the company hinted at plans to test an online service that would enable consumers to talk to doctors through Google Helpouts.

And then, of course, there's Google Glass.

“Google X’s job is to take on big problems, to try to find clever solutions to big problems, and one of the problems we decided to tackle was healthcare,” Conrad told Wired. “The way in which we envision doing this is inverting the paradigm in medicine  which is currently reactive and episodic  to a new paradigm that is proactive and cumulative.”