How Google X and Startups Are Improving Cancer Detection

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Two of the tech world’s most potent forces — search engine giant Google and a growing number of startups — are both tackling the limitations of current methods of cancer detection, and looking to replace them with methods that will both find cancer faster and enable people to screen themselves for the early signs of diseases on a regular basis.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is developing nanoparticles, coupled with a magnetic wearable device, that will search the body for early signs of diseases like cancer. Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences team at Google X, announced the research arm’s newest ambition at the Wall Street Journal Digital conference in California.

Google said that the particles measure less one-thousandth of the width of a red blood cell, and can be packed into a capsule that a person can swallow. The particles will then seek out and latch onto cells, proteins, or other molecules inside the body. The accompanying wearable device would use a magnet to attract and count the particles, and to find out what’s going on in the body. Conrad told the audience at the conference, “Every test you ever go to the doctor for will be done through this system. That is our dream.”

Conrad said that with these nanoparticles, people could just swallow a pill on a daily basis, making it unnecessary to go to the doctor and give blood and urine samples. They could upload the data from the wearable device to the cloud, where a doctor could monitor it, and be alerted to early signs of disease. Conrad is hopeful that the technology will be in the hands of every doctor within a decade.

Industry experts queried by The Wall Street Journal say that bringing the concept to reality is likely five or more years off, and faces both technical and social challenges. Sam Gambhir, who is the chairman of radiology at Stanford University Medical School and has been advising Conrad on the project for more than a year, said that Google is five to seven years away from a product approved by doctors. Researchers will need to develop coatings that will help the nanoparticles bind to specific cells, and must determine how many particles are needed. The wearable device will also need to be unobtrusive, yet large enough to accommodate a battery that won’t require frequent charging.

If the system delivers the nanoparticles via a pill, it will also face a much more stringent regulatory process than conventional diagnostic tools would typically have to undergo. Social concerns, like questions about privacy, would be of paramount importance to potential users, and Conrad has already headed off criticism with the explanation that Google won’t store medical data itself. Instead, it will license the technology to other groups, who will handle the data it generates and the security of users’ information.

Google X — the same research division that created Google’s self-driving car, its Internet-bearing high-altitude balloons, its Google Glass wearable, and a smart contact lens that monitors glucose levels — is increasingly making forays into the intersection of tech advances within the field of medicine. In the group’s “Baseline Study,” Google will collect genetic and molecular data from volunteers to work toward a better understanding of the genetics of health — which would help uncover biomarkers to detect and prevent disease.

Conrad told Steven Levy in an interview published on BACKCHANNEL, that the way cancer detection and diagnosis currently works is comparable to changing the oil in a car only when it breaks down, and forgoing any preventative maintenance. The idea is to help change the health care system — from reactive to proactive:

For the last two thousand years, health care has been this transactional, reactive system. You go to the doctor when you’re sick and the doctor prods you, taps you, and gives you a prescription or does some procedure, then sends you on your way. But with serious disease, we frequently encounter the physician when we already are very sick. In fact, a majority of cancers are diagnosed in the later stages because they’ve become clinically apparent. Some cancers have 90% success rate if you diagnose them in early stage one. But most cancers have a 5 or 10% survival rate if you diagnose them in stage four. We’re diagnosing cancer at the wrong time.

Without continuous monitoring, the health care system misses the opportunity to detect disease early, when the cues are still subtle. In Conrad’s view, continuous monitoring necessitates a wearable device. “Can you imagine if you had to carry a 60-pound thing around with a radar dish on your head and poke yourself with needles every hour?” he asks Levy. “People just wouldn’t do it.” While medicine has looked at the body at the level of the organ or organism, changes in the body begin at the cellular or molecular level.

Using nanoparticles that can pass through different parts of the body — benign particles made out of an iron oxide core, decorated with “smart molecules on their surface so they do smart things” — Google could detect anything from a rare cancer cell to a common molecule. Two thousand of the particles are the size of a single red blood cell.

Google has already been able to build the nanoparticles, coat or “decorate” them, and prove their ability to bind to what they should. Conrad explains that Google had to talk about the project because a variety of related patents will be visible by the public “in the next month or so.” Conrad says that the nanoparticle project is a manifestation of a program with a much broader mission:

We’re instituting a program that includes really, really powerful partnerships with universities, with healthcare providers, with pharma companies. And by having a philosophy that says ‘partner wisely,’ we’re punching way above our weight, and we may have a chance to turn this battleship of healthcare around.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the nanoparticle project involves more than 100 Google employees, from areas as diverse as astrophysics, chemistry, and electrical engineering. (Separately, the Journal reports that it learned more about the researchers taking part in the project. The team working on the nanotechnology project includes Scientific Lead Vikram Bajaj, Biomedical Systems Engineering Group Lead Vasiliki Demas, Astrophysicist James Higbie, Systems Immunology Scientific Lead Sanjeev Mariathasan, Clinical Science Leader Mark Lee, and Chemistry and Chemical Biology Group Manager Mark Audeh.)

While the U.S. government has invested more than $20 billion in nanotechnology research since 2001 — including $4.3 billion from health-related agencies — the area has produced few commercial products, despite general recognition of its promise for medicine.

The Journal cites Nanosphere‘s diagnostic tests (which screen blood, saliva, and urine for causes of infection), and AuraSense Therapeutics‘ nanotechnology-dependent globular forms of DNA (used to treat cancer and other diseases) as promising implementations of nanotechnology. T2 Biosystems uses nanoparticles in blood tests outside the body to detect candida infections, and Bind Therapeutics is currently conducting clinical trials to test the nanoparticles’ ability to deliver drugs that target diseases like cancer.

Similar in theory to Google’s approach, Bind uses specific coatings and a targeting molecule to direct nanoparticles to their destinations, such as tumor tissue. Google will use a similar idea not to deliver drugs, but to continuously test and monitor the body.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the company has “made progress” on creating the tiny iron-oxide particles on which its system will rely, and has also begun to identify the coatings that will cause them to bind with specific cells. Conrad noted that Google hopes to coat nanoparticles with an antibody that will recognize and bind to a protein on the surface of tumor cells.

How to interpret the results won’t be immediately clear, and that problem reportedly factored into Conrad’s team’s creation of the Baseline Study. Conrad hopes that the data the study collects will provide a benchmark for comparisons, and told WSJ, “We need to know the healthy levels of these disease-carrying molecules in the blood, and we don’t know now.”

But as Tech Cheat Sheet reported, both Conrad and Gambhir characterize the Baseline Study as a “giant leap into the unknown,” since researchers know little about the interplay of DNA, enzymes, and proteins with environmental factors and diet.

Google isn’t the only tech company that’s made headlines with a promising new way to detect diseases early on in their development. Vice reports that a new startup named Miroculus has created a device, called “Miriam,” which will enable users to detect cancerous cells and other diseases in just 60 minutes, using a simple blood test and their smartphone.

The device identifies microRNA patterns in the user’s blood, using them to find out if something is abnormal inside the body. MicroRNAs regulate how many cells the body creates, so their patterns are particularly relevant to the detection of cancer — which sees a cell mutating and multiplying.

Jorge Soto, chief technology officer at Miroculus, told Vice that while microRNAs are promising as biomarkers, current detection methods are limited. Miriam is intended as “a low cost solution to detect microRNA and correlate them with specific diseases” to accelerate clinical use of microRNAs, as biomarkers not only for cancer and metabolic diseases, but also for psychiatric diseases.

While microRNAs were discovered 20 years ago, just five years ago researchers discovered that they are secreted freely in the bloodstream. When a specific microRNA is found in the blood, it can be linked to the associated part of the body. Certain patterns of microRNAs have also been linked to metabolic diseases like diabetes and cancer, and psychiatric diseases like Alzheimer’s. “Think of it as a biological fingerprint,” Soto explains.

The Miriam device includes 96 well plates — small indentations where blood is distributed — and each plate “looks for” a specific microRNA. If the specific microRNA is present when the user places his or her blood in the machine, then the well will shine green. Miriam measures which wells are shining, and how much they are shining, to detect specific diseases, and learn which stage the disease has reached. Those patterns are detected by an iOS app, but Soto notes that by the end of the year, Miroculus will have a new version of the Miriam, which doesn’t require the use of a smartphone app at all.

Miroculus is focusing on the detection of breast cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and eventually ovarian cancer. The team is also interested in exploring metabolic diseases like gestational diabetes, which affects women during pregnancy and is important to detect as early possible.

Soto explains that eventually, people will be able to use the device in addition to getting annual checkups from their physicians, so they can regularly check for the presence of diseases at the molecular level. The device is currently in clinical trials as a companion tool to ascertain whether medications are working to treat a disease.

While Miriam’s wells for the microRNA are patented, the design of the device itself has been made open-source, so that people can 3D print it themselves. Soto explains, “We know that there are people out there smarter than us, and in the past we’ve seen the benefits of making software open-source. We want the best and the brightest to help us—critique us—which, in turn, will allow us to be scalable. We want the device to eventually be cheap for everyone—free, essentially, minus the bimolecular component.”

Another new idea to improve the detection of cancer with a cheap and simple method of screening actually uses the combination of a serving of yogurt and a urine test to detect colorectal cancer early on. As MIT’s Technology Review reports, Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT professor, is looking to replace expensive and uncomfortable colonoscopies with synthetic molecules that can be brought into the body by yogurt. The molecules interact with cancer to produce telltale biomarkers, which can be detected with a paper test like women use to detect pregnancy.

Bhatia previously approached the problem by developing nanoparticles that find their way to tumors, and then are broken into smaller pieces by the enzymes that the cancer produces. The particles were then collected and concentrated by the kidneys, and then excreted. The nanoparticle iteration of the idea requires an injection, so Bhatia is developing a way to deliver the particles by modifying a bacteria found in yogurt. The bacteria produces the nanoparticle by interacting with a tumor, and Bhatia is forming a company to commercialize her approach to “transforming” diagnostics.

Still another approach to improving the early detection of cancer is one taken by Y-Combinator-backed Bikanta, which looks to improve the results obtained by traditional imaging methods like MRIs. Bikanta uses nanodiamonds to detect molecular abnormalities at a much earlier stage than would traditionally be possible.

TechCrunch reported in August that Dr. Ambika Bumb created Bikanta out of dissatisfaction with the current state and limitations of cancer screening methods. Current methods can’t detect small tumors, or the breakaway tumor cells that lead to micrometastatic tumors that spread cancer throughout the body, and go undetected in large numbers each year. Other technical limitations include signal loss, high background interference, and the high toxicity of some detection methods.

The process of “un-mixing” fluorescent signals from the background also poses a significant challenge to current methods of lighting up molecular abnormalities, like fluorescent dyes and quantum dots. Fluorescent dye, for instance, doesn’t give off any light if the molecular structure is different. But Bumb found that crushing imperfect diamonds into dust creates a fluorescent and reflective light that can highlight any molecular abnormality, and compares the method to “having a flashlight inside your body that basically lasts forever.”

Initial tests with nanodiamonds found that the method is successful in reducing background noise, and the technology has been used to detect lymph nodes that were invisible with standard methods of optical imaging. The necessity of better methods to detect cancer led to a $3.5 billion market for optical imaging reagents — fluorescent dyes, nanodiamonds, and other products that can “light up” the inside of the body in the search for tumors and tumor cells. The market could reach a value of $5 billion as early as 2017.

But even beyond imaging for cancer detection, Bumb’s nanodiamonds could eventually carry anticancer drugs along with them. The nanodiamonds can be bound to a targeting agent, such as antibodies, and Bikanta could create drugs to detect and target very specific diseases. That could potentially help doctors find and destroy cancer before it spreads, which is the ultimate goal of all of the companies looking to improve our chances of detecting cancer as early as possible.

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