Google X is building the most detailed database of the human body ever
Google x Baseline Study wants to create the most detailed map of the human body ever.Reuters

Google is going to put the power of its computing network to work on analysing the human body, but rather than trying to find diseases it wants to figure out how the healthy human body works.

Google X, the search giant's research arm, has created Baseline Study, a project which aims to collect the genetic and molecular structure of thousands of people to create the most fully-rounded picture of how the human body works.

The study, which is being led by Dr. Andrew Conrad, a 50-year-old molecular biologist responsible for developing cheap, high-volume HIV tests for blood plasma donations, will seek to find so-called "biomarkers" which will help to prevent disease rather than cure it.

The project aims to collate the widest and deepest set of data about the human body ever assembled which the researchers hope will help them spot the things which trigger killer diseases much sooner, thus preventing them becoming a bigger problem.

"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Dr. Conrad told 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."

Using Google's cloud computing network the researchers will seek to identify previously unseen patterns - or biomarkers - in the huge amounts of information they have gathered.

To begin with a clinical trial has begun with 175 people who gave samples of bodily fluids such as urine, blood, saliva and tears and will soon donate tissue samples.

Privacy concerns

What Google is doing is essentially building a database of how the human body works and the specific molecular make-up of thousands of people, and this alone will be enough to send shivers through privacy advocates and raise serious questions regarding privacy and security.

"That's certainly an issue that's been discussed," said Dr Sam Gambhir, who chairs the Department of Radiology at Stanford University's medical school and has been working with Dr. Conrad on Baseline for more than a year. "Google will not be allowed free rein to do whatever it wants with this data."

To try and assuage people's fears, Google says that once Baseline is up and running it will be monitored by institutional review boards (at Duke University and Stanford University), which oversee all medical research involving humans and it will be these that control how the information is used.

Intimate, detailed information about a person would be of huge commercial value to the likes of insurance companies looking to estimate your lifespan. Google has said that data won't be shared with insurance companies and will be limited to health and medical purposes.