It’s a realistic blueprint for how tech could change medicine. But it’s also an emblem of how long that transformation will take.
Verily, formerly known as Google Life Sciences, plans to begin a long-awaited 10,000-person study to explore the biology of healthy people in the next several months, the company says. The study will initially be run at Stanford University and Duke University, and could take a decade.
“No one has attempted this deep a dive into so many individuals over so long a time,” says Sam Gambhir, chair of the department of radiology at Stanford, of the effort, called the Blueprint Study.
Each patient will undergo a battery of physical tests, including genome sequencing, a CAT scan of the chest to check for the buildup of calcium in heart arteries, eye exams and blood tests. They will return every year for five years for follow-up tests. They will also wear Verily’s new investigational device, the Study Watch, which will measure electrocardiogram (ECG), heart rate, electrodermal activity and inertial movements, and keep a sensor under their mattresses to measure how well they sleep.
Gambhir says a 10,000-patient effort was in the works from the moment he first met with Verily chief executive Andy Conrad three years ago. What took so long? For one thing, developing the Study Watch, a device that was robustly able to track real-time data, and also developing technology that would allow patients to enter new health information in real time in a smartphone, Mega says. More than that, the study required developing a new data infrastructure to keep track of all the data and to make it searchable.
But it’s going to take a long time for the effort to run. Gambhir says it’s currently expected that it will take four years to recruit all 10,000 patients, starting at Stanford and Duke and expanding to other academic medical centers over the coming years. Each patient will be followed for at least five years, meaning it will be almost a decade before the initial phase of the research is complete.
Mega and Gambhir say that they expect information will emerge faster that that. Hypothetical queries could include whether sleep affects blood test results that are correlated to the immune system, or if particular proteins raise the risk of cancer.
Still, even many of those results will not be answers, but hints. A result from a study like this can only sometimes be taken as medical truth. More often, Gambhir says, it will be a new hypothesis that must be tested in a second clinical trial. Tech types sometimes like to imagine big data approaches could replace clinical trials. Alphabet (formerly Google), the parent company of Verily and Google, seems to have come to a different conclusion.
Technology has improved the kind of data we can collect about the human body, and will allow us to deal with a lot more data. But getting information will require the same kind of time-consuming collection of information that led us to start understanding the causes of heart disease, with the Framingham Study. It started following people in 1948, and has now tracked three generations and resulted in a thousand scientific papers.
The tech may be fast. But biology is still slow.