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Is Google Serious about Healthcare or Not?

On the heels of Google's founders downplaying the importance of healthcare to its business, the company has all of a sudden announced an ambitious project to analyze the genetic and molecular data of ultimately thousands of people.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the project was Google's "most ambitious and difficult science project ever."

The news also marks the second time in two years the company has announced its plans to sponsor ambitious healthcare research. In September 2013, the company acquired the life-extension firm Calico, which is vying to "cure death." At least that's what several media outlets reported in articles that test the boundaries of sensationalism. At the very least though, Calico is hoping to drive radical life extension.

Google Fit
Google recently announced its competitor to Apple's Health Kit, which it calls "Google Fit."

Google's latest undertaking also hopes to extend the health lifespans of humans. Known as the Baseline Study, the project will amass data related to often-fatal diseases like heart disease and cancer, potentially enabling earlier treatment and outcomes.

In pursuit of that goal, the secretive Google X lab will gather a team of roughly 70 to 100 researchers hailing from a number of scientific backgrounds. Leading the project is Andrew Conrad, PhD, a molecular biologist who helped develop an inexpensive test to detect HIV in blood plasma. Conrad also is the founder of the California Health and Longevity Institute, which, based on its website, looks more like a spa than a traditional research organization.

The researchers' tactic in improving healthcare and boosting longevity is to focus on healthy patients as well as sick patients--coming to a new understanding of what a patient's normal baseline health is. As a press release puts it, the company wants to reveal "what it means to be healthy."

"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Conrad was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal. "That's not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like."

Google will support the Baseline Study project by setting loose its Big Data technology to detect biomarkers associated with everything from digestion to heart health.

To tentatively answer the question posed in the headline in this article, it seems that Google is genuinely interested in healthcare and, in particular, discovering ways to extend human's lifespan. The company is also interested in things that are "cool," to quote the words of the company's founders. Examples of such "cool" technology include Google Fit, a healthcare tracking service for Android and glucose-sensing contact-lens technology, which ultimately may be commercialized by Novartis. Conversely, the company is determined not to make itself a healthcare company per se as it has little appetite to deal with the regulatory hurdles that would be involved in an aggressive entry into the healthcare market. The company's appetite has also diminished after its Google Health property failed to take off and was shut down in 2011.

Google's Baseline Study is an example of what it terms "moonshot thinking," which has been derided by some observers as hype. Still, some of these projects certainly sound ambitious whether or not they succeed in meeting the company's goal of being tenfold better than existing technologies. Other examples of so-called moonshot projects include self-driving cars, Google Glass, and the tech giant's aforementioned Calico venture questing to "solve death."

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MEDevice San Diego, September 10-11, 2014.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz and Google+.

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