The company’s announcement marks “an intent to do something, not a discovery or a pathway to get there,” said Chad Mirkin, the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University.
The plan, according to The Wall Street Journal, is to coat tiny magnetic particles with substances that will let them track certain molecules, like cancer cells. People would swallow the particles in a pill and use a wearable device to monitor their activity, providing an early-warning system for disease.
But while Google has said it will be able to do some of these things “within a few years,” many experts are skeptical.
Bullis points to some significant technical problems Google will have to solve to turn its vision into a reality, including getting the nanoparticles into the bloodstream, figuring out exactly how to measure their signals, ensuring they won’t be rejected by the body, and guaranteeing their safety.
Magnetic nanoparticles aren’t a new idea. For years, scientists have been experimenting with how they might be used to diagnose, image, and treat a variety of illnesses, especially cancer. But “despite the tremendous advances… it is still too early to predict their success… in the clinical world,” researchers wrote in a recent essay assessing the state of the field.
And the safety of these particles remains a serious concern.
Despite these challenges, there are over 100 people at Google working on this project, and Andrew Conrad, who is leading the team, says they’ve already done in less than two years what most institutions would accomplish in “a good decade.”
“We’ve done a lot, to be quite humble about it,” he told Steven Levy at Backchannel. “Enough to give us great confidence that this is all likely to work.”