Alphabet seeks 10,000 volunteers and their health data for a massive medical study

Alphabet’s Google division is, fundamentally, in the business of selling data. That is a useful thing to keep in mind when Alphabet’s Verily comes calling for your medical data. But Google is also inarguably useful; this is why, despite knowing that my every move is being tracked by the company, I still make use of Google search, Gmail, and Google Docs, among its other myriad services. Verily’s Project Baseline is, in some sense, the health equivalent of those kinds of services — it has the potential to greatly expand our knowledge about what human health looks like. Not incidentally, the project will be of service to Verily as well.

In 2014, Verily — then a division of Google X — announced the Baseline Project, a collaboration with Duke University and Stanford University to try to get a sense of what a “normal” human looks like. Today, the group announced it will begin enrolling 10,000 healthy people, following a pilot in about 200 people that began in 2014. Over the course of four years, researchers will collect genetic data, blood samples, medical images, and other information from the study participants.

That “other information” might include environmental data, as well as responses to phone surveys, and data from sensors in the Study Watch, a sensor-packed smartwatch announced last week. The studies are starting in the San Francisco Bay Area and North Carolina, though the scientists behind the effort hope to expand the areas surveyed. And because the program is meant to be nationally-representative, recruitment may be a little slow. When it’s over, there will be a database of anonymized data that plenty of researchers — including those from the pharmaceutical industry — will have access to.

This style of study isn’t unprecedented; in fact, it’s been a feature of medical discovery for quite some time. The most famous example is the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 with about 5,000 patients. At the time, doctors didn’t know much about heart attack and stroke, except that they were common and often deadly. So the Framingham study was devised in order to follow people ages 30 to 62 from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts for years and see if there were clues to those ailments. In 1948, and every two years afterwards, the study participants checked in. A second generation was added in 1971, and a third in 2002.

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Illustration Credit: James Bareham

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