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Google's healthcare cousin to stick 10,000 human guinea pigs under the microscope

Four-year study will bung patient records in the cloud

By Katyanna Quach, 19 Apr 2017

Alphabet’s healthcare arm, and Google stablemate, Verily Life Sciences has today announced Project Baseline: a study that will glean massive amounts of healthcare records by monitoring thousands of patients over four years.

Verily Life Sciences will work with the medical schools at Stanford University in California and Duke University in North Carolina. The experiment will track the health of 10,000 willing participants representative of the US population, to understand the risk factors and effects of diseases. Verily will recruit across the US first and later, internationally.

The Verily website suggests Alphabet – learning from its DeepMind privacy snafus – is at least taking advice this time on safeguarding patients' records, as it mentions: “Project Baseline has been approved by the Western Institutional Review Board, which protects the rights of research participants.”

Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical officer, said the project is the first step to “comprehensively map human health.” The resulting dataset will allow researchers to test and develop new methods for accessing and managing healthcare information, and to understand better how illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer can be detected and prevented.

Data will be generated from each patient through:

  • Repeated clinical visits
  • Sensors implanted in wrist-worn devices
  • Regular surveys and polls

Information about people’s phenotypes and biochemical traits will be compared to gauge what biological indicators are related to different diseases.

Adrian Hernandez, professor of medicine at Duke University, said Project Baseline will modernize healthcare by making it more personalized. “Instead of having the annual physical exam that has not changed in decades, we’re hoping to develop new platforms that will discover changes in health as they happen in meaningful and actionable ways.”

As tech giants expand into the healthcare industry, privacy issues have been raised due to the sensitive nature of healthcare data. AI braintrust DeepMind was criticized for participating in a dodgy deal with the UK’s Royal Free London hospital, which used thousands of patients’ data without their explicit consent.

Since Verily is collecting the data from patients themselves, with their express permission, it won’t encounter the same problems. The huge swathes of data will be kept in Google’s cloud and “meets the rigorous compliance standards that test for data safety, privacy and security.” Some of the data will be made available to qualified researchers for academic purposes, but the identities of the patients will be masked. ®

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