Is Google Biotech Team Overreaching?

September 9, 2016

Science reality is often inspired by science fiction, and Google’s biotech research division, Verily Life Sciences, is no exception. Business Insider posts, “‘Silicon Valley Arrogance’? Google Misfires as It Strives to Turn Star Trek Fiction Into Reality.” The “Star Trek” reference points to Verily’s Tricorder project, announced three years ago, which set out to create a cancer-early-detection device. Sadly, that hopeful venture may be sputtering out. STAT reporter Charles Piller writes:

Recently departed employees said the prototype didn’t work as hoped, and the Tricorder project is floundering. Tricorder is not the only misfire for Google’s ambitious and extravagantly funded biotech venture, now named Verily Life Sciences. It has announced three signature projects meant to transform medicine, and a STAT examination found that all of them are plagued by serious, if not fatal, scientific shortcomings, even as Verily has vigorously promoted their promise.

Piller cites two projects, besides the Tricorder, that underwhelm. We’re told that independent experts are dubious about the development of a smart contact lens that can detect glucose levels for diabetics. Then there is the very expensive Baseline study—an attempt to define what it means to be healthy and to catch diseases earlier—which critics call “lofty” and “far-fetched.” Not surprisingly, Google being Google, there are also some privacy concerns being raised about the data being collected to feed the study.

There are several criticisms and specific examples in the lengthy article, and interested readers should check it out. There seems to be one central notion, though— that Verily Live Sciences is attempting to approach the human body like a computer when medicine is much, much more complicated than that. The impressive roster of medical researchers on the team seems to provide little solace to critics. The write-up relates:

It’s axiomatic in Silicon Valley’s tech companies that if the math and the coding can be done, the product can be made. But seven former Verily employees said the company’s leadership often seems not to grasp the reality that biology can be more complex and less predictable than computers. They said Conrad, who has a PhD in anatomy and cell biology, applies the confident impatience of computer engineering, along with extravagant hype, to biotech ideas that demand rigorous peer review and years or decades of painstaking work.

Are former employees the most objective source? I suspect ex-Googlers and third-party scientists are underestimating Google. The company has a history of reaching the moon by shooting for the stars, and for enduring a few failures as a price of success. I would not be surprised to see Google emerge on top of the biotech field. (As sci fi fans know, biotech is the medicine of the future. You’ll see.) The real question is how the company will treat privacy, data rights, and patient safety along the way.

Cynthia Murrell, September 9, 2016
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