Can Google help to better diagnose cancer?

There’s a lot of hype today about a new initiative of the Google X research group, which has announced that it is investigating the use of nanoparticles to identify early signs of all sorts of disorders from fatty plaques that can cause a heart attack or stroke to early signs of cancer.

The best report on this initiative appears to be the one on the BBC News web site, which covers not only the Google X announcement but also provides input from experts on the issues that are likely to affect the successful application of such technology (if it can indeed identify and characterize early signals of disease).

As many men diagnosed with prostate cancer today understand, it is not enough to just identify some prostate cancer cells and then assume that treatment will save your life. The critical question is whether what has been identified will actually lead to clinically significant disease that needs treatment at all.

Along with Prof. Paul Workman, the chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, The “New” Prostate Cancer InfoLink thinks it is exciting and helpful to see highly innovative companies like Google investing in this field. However, being able to make clinically significant steps forward based on such research will be a great deal harder than finding out whether a specific type of nanoparticle might be able to identify the presence of a prostate cancer cell somewhere in the body of a 50-year-old male. Humans create abberant, potentially cancer-forming cells throughout their lives, but most of those cells are well controlled by the body’s natural immune system. What we need to be able to identify is the cells that are capable of initiating clinically significant tumor growth, and that will be a much harder trick to pull off.

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