It sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie, but one day in the near future you may swallow a pill that looks for cancer and other diseases in your body.
Such a pill is being developed by Google, whose days as merely a search engine are long past. The company is delving into everything from delivery drones to Google Glass to medical nanotechnology, and it’s this unlikely pursuit that has scientists talking. “It’s very exciting,” says Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, in an interview with MIT Technology Review.
But Mirkin points out that Google faces some technological and biological challenges in bringing the idea to execution. The project could also run into privacy concerns, given controversy surrounding Google’s massive data-collection initiatives.
“The notion of Google monitoring a human body around the clock is likely to worry critics who complain the company already has access to too much information,” The Wall Street Journal writes.
From a medical standpoint, though, the use of nanoparticles—fragments much smaller than red blood cells—to zero in on cancer is a promising one, says John Sweetenham, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist at University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute.
“The advantage of that is all-around early detection,” he says. “If we can detect these diseases earlier, the chance of success is better.
“I think we’re already clinically in the early stages of being able to do this,” Sweetenham says (although it’s not currently in a pill form the way Google envisions). Today, doctors use nanoparticles to deliver certain drugs. It works by homing in on cancer cells and delivering the medication directly, which is more effective than just injecting it into the bloodstream.
The principle would be the same for detection, Sweetenham says. The nanoparticles would race right to a tumor and give doctors feedback about the DNA of the cancerous cells, a more effective method than hunting for miniscule scraps of telltale DNA in a patient’s blood.
“If we can detect it at very low levels and very early in the disease process, then we know we have a much better chance of a cure, and we can do that in a way with far fewer side effects,” Sweetenham says.