Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is a company built on providing information to make our lives easier. While that information included search histories, maps, and cloud-based software in the past, the search giant recently launched a new Google X project to better understand the human body.
The project, known as the Baseline Study, will organize data from accumulated genetic profiles. Google will initially collect genetic data from 175 people, followed by thousands more. Dr. Andrew Conrad -- a molecular biologist known for developing cheap HIV tests for blood donations -- will lead a team of 70-100 medical experts to accomplish the study.
Baseline will map out participants' entire genomes, their parents' genetic history, fluctuating heart rates, metabolism, and even how chemical reactions change their genetic behavior. The ultimate goal is to identify genetic biomarkers for the early detection of major health issues such as high cholesterol, heart disease, and cancer. This information could possibly be made available to medical companies researching new gene-targeted treatments.
Major concerns, massive growth potential
While Baseline sounds impressive, it also raises privacy and regulatory concerns if the program is expanded to include more genetic profiles.
The long-term implications of a searchable database of mapped genomes are alarming, considering that Google is the largest search engine in the world. However, Google has promised that the results will remain anonymous and limited to medical purposes.
But even if Baseline wins over privacy advocates, the U.S. government will definitely be concerned about Google amassing a database of genetic records. The privacy requirements of HIPAA will cause huge problems if Google ever wants to mine that data in any commercial way -- a fact that CEO Larry Page mentioned during an interview at the Khosla Ventures CEO Summit. Page stated that he worried about missing out on "really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end" in healthcare.
Plunging testing costs and faster machines would definitely help accelerate Baseline's progress. In January, life sciences company Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN) broke the "genome sound barrier" with a machine which could sequence the entire human genome for just $1,000. Less than a decade ago, that process would have cost $250,000.
Google's not alone
Google isn't the only tech company investing in genome sequencing. In January, Sony (NYSE:SNE) announced a partnership with Japanese medical portal M3 and Illumina to launch a genome information company known as P5.
While Baseline asks for volunteers to enter their genetic information into Google's system, P5 aims to provide genome analysis services for research institutions and other businesses across Japan. The ultimate goal is to help businesses develop better personalized medicine and healthcare services.
Mass genomics projects existed long before Google's Baseline Study and P5, but those studies were mostly conducted within universities and private institutions, not publicly traded companies.
Another piece of Google's healthcare puzzle
Google's Baseline Study isn't the company's first foray into the global healthcare industry.
Google tried to create a united personal health record with Google Health, which was canceled in 2011 due to a lack of industry support and public recognition. Last September, Google established Calico, a biotech subsidiary to study the effects of aging, although not much is known about its current projects. Google announced Google Fit, a centralized system for fitness apps and wearables in June.
Novartis (NYSE:NVS) recently licensed Google's "smart lens" technology for diabetes and eye care. On the horizon is Google Glass, which hasn't gained much public support, but is widely considered a valuable hands-free tool for hospitals.
A Foolish final word
Since HIPAA regulations will prevent Google from mining genetic data for commercial uses, Baseline's data probably won't ever be connected to consumer-facing products like Google Fit, Android devices, or Google Glass.
However, Baseline could be merged with Calico to assist in the development of new treatments, and could also help Google X's Life Sciences Group develop new wearable devices. Baseline's information could also be shared with the biopharmaceutical industry, which would accelerate the development of gene-targeted drugs.
While Baseline might seems like a "moon shot" at first, it really isn't. Baseline fits into Google's strategy of collecting information and organizing it for new uses, and could eventually be as valuable a tool to the healthcare industry as Google Maps is to drivers.