Soon detecting cancer may be as simple as swallowing a pill

Nov 3, 2014 at 2:35 p.m. ET
Image: Ihar Kaskevich/iStock Photos

From finding red leather boots to updating your will to wondering why your dog drags his butt across the carpet (Hint: His anal glands need expressing, and there's a YouTube video tutorial on that), Google already knows practically everything going through our minds these days. And now they may know everything going through our bodies as well thanks to a new invention announced by Google's X lab.

The super secretive Google X Lab, famous for projects like glucose-measuring contact lenses and driverless cars, recently announced a new project for public health: a pill you can swallow that will search your body for cancer cells, from the inside out. But does this mean the end to cancer or to privacy? Or both?

Andrew Conrad, head of Google's Life Sciences division, said in a press conference last week that they're looking into more ways to promote preventative medicine, as opposed to the current reactionary model. This means the company wants to help people find potential illness and treat it as early as possible rather than waiting until someone starts showing symptoms. But it's so difficult to find sneaky cancer cells in the body before they start mutating into full-blown disease — that is unless you have an inside view. This is exactly what they're hoping the Google Pill can do.

"You swallow a pill with nanoparticles and they're decorated in antibodies, molecules that detect other molecules," Conrad explained. "They course through your body and because the cores of these particles are magnetic you can call them somewhere. If you look at your wrist you can see that there are these superficial veins so just by putting a magnet there you can trap [the nanoparticles in the pill] and you can ask them what they saw."

Google says the science still has five to seven years before it becomes available to the public, but when it does, it could start a medical revolution, both with the ways illnesses are diagnosed and how they're treated.

But while many people are excited about the news, others are asking what this means for our privacy. Thanks to Google Maps, they're eerily omniscient on a global scale and because of their search engine they have a bird's eye view into all our thoughts. Google Wallet means they know our purchasing patterns and Gmail and Google+ means they know everything about our work and social lives. So do we really want Google knowing what we're doing on a cellular level?

I've watched several close family members die of cancer so personally I'm OK with trading in some privacy for the ability to detect disease earlier (can they also tell me why I can't lose these last 10 pounds while they're in there too??). Privacy experts say this is a mistake, that the information could be used in ways we never intended and could hurt us. All the same though I can't imagine anything that would hurt quite as much as watching a dear friend die of brain cancer.

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