In 2003, it cost $300 million to sequence one human genome. Today, that price tag has fallen to just $1000. Google X is taking advantage of that change to perform mass genome sequencing and health research in their ambitious Baseline Study, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Genetic sequencing is just the start; Google’s futuristic and semi-secret research arm plans to use their participants to create a comprehensive model of a healthy human body, down to the molecular level, starting with 175 volunteers this summer.

In addition to whole genome sequencing, Baseline Study participants will provide parental genetic information, tissue samples, and bodily fluids including blood, urine, tears, and saliva. Researchers will gather data on how the participants metabolize food and drugs and test their heart rates under stress. They will analyze the manner in which chemical reactions in the body interact with their genes.

Volunteers will continue to be monitored through an array of wearable sensors under development by Google X, recording physiological data like heart rate and blood oxygen saturation. Blood glucose will be constantly monitored by the Google Contact Lens, the product of another Google X project to provide diabetics with a noninvasive alternative to regular blood pricks. The data, which will be collected by a firm unaffiliated with Google, will be controlled by review boards from Duke’s and Stanford’s medical schools, and will be made available to other medical research teams.

Google Contact Lens

The Baseline Study will constitute the most thorough mass medical study ever performed, and the project’s director, molecular biologist Andrew Conrad, has big visions for the data. With individually identifiable information removed, the data will be aggregated and analyzed for biomarkers that correlate with, and can predict, diseases.

That information will, if the project is successful, facilitate better preventive medicine. An individual could know extremely detailed information about their risks for various diseases from a simple genetic test. Treatment could be performed years before health problems emerge, far earlier they are today under the current reactive state of medicine. The genetic test may only need to cover certain segments used as biomarkers, or the continually plummeting cost of whole genome sequencing may make the comprehensive test a standard procedure for every patient.

The WSJ offers a dark view of a hypothetical over-informed world, in which insurance companies, employers, or potential spouses discriminate on the basis of genetic risk factors. While such uses may be possible, they provide a weak argument against improving our knowledge of human health.

That knowledge so far remains extremely incomplete and insufficient for effective healthcare, and seems especially lacking in light of advances in understanding in other research fields.

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