Top 5 Health Technology Groundbreakers

These World-Changing Projects Shift How Diseases Are Treated

Top Five Health Technology Moonshots
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Moonshot is a term that was adopted by Google to refer to potentially world-changing projects that are being developed in their Google X lab and are now also known as the X projects. Moonshot thinking involves ideas that might seem impossible, but can become possible when science and technology get combined in an innovative way.

At the essence of a moonshot project is some sort of a breakthrough technology that is applied to solve a huge problem.

The solution might appear somewhat drastic, verging on science fiction and utopian visions. A successful solution has the potential to bring a massive improvement to an existing situation or problem. Therefore, to some moonshot technology is seen as worthy investment, even if it involves a lot of risk-taking.  

Since Google first started with moonshot projects, there have been some structural changes within the organization — most notable, Alphabet was created as the parent company of Google. Its portfolio encompasses technology, research and life sciences, and includes some of Google’s original moonshot projects such as augmented reality glasses, driver-less cars, Project Loon and Google Life Sciences (now Verily). The term moonshot has now become familiar to many, and different aspirations can be described as “moonshots;” for example, the interoperability of digital health data

Mapping a Healthy Human Body

In 2014, Google embarked on a project called Baseline Study.

Led by molecular biologist Dr. Andrew Conrad, the team began collecting different biological data from volunteers to build a prototype of a completely healthy human body. Conrad explains that “by studying health, we might someday be better able to understand disease.” The Baseline Study’s goal is not only to improve the understanding of human physiology and health, but also to detect deviations from the norm, so common diseases could be prevented.

The team’s vision is to create a chimera model that would represent a healthy human created from various individuals. Thousands of anonymous volunteers are contributing their biological samples including genetic and anatomic material. This material provides researchers with an abundance of information they will ultimately analyze using Google’s computing powers. The researchers are hoping to reveal specific biomarkers that could be the key to understanding the occurrence of chronic diseases (such as cancer and heart disease). For instance, by examining the biogenetic traits of a healthy prototype, scientists might be able to explain why cancer cells develop in some people while not in others. Conrad’s team is aiming to provide doctors with new ways of detecting deadly diseases at a much earlier stage, with the ultimate goal of preventing disease before it develops.

‘Curing’ Aging

Calico, short for California Life Company, launched another seemingly impossible project: immortality. The Calico team is looking into treating the underlying causes of aging. If their quest proves successful, the onset of age-related disability, disease and death could be drastically changed and postponed. Although some argue that a project with such an ambition could disturb the natural cycle of life — and perhaps contribute to the overpopulation of the planet — the idea is alluring and has been on the wish list of many since the beginning of humanity.

Calico consists of scientists from different areas of medicine, drug development, molecular biology and genetics — some of them scientific superstars in their field. These individuals want to discover the mechanisms of aging and develop interventions that could prolong life span and infuse it with more health and well-being. In its search for longevity, Calico is partnering with other companies that could support their core ideas.

In April of this year, Calico announced collaboration with The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), the world’s leading institution for conducting sophisticated mouse genetic studies.

The long-term collaboration will focus on applying mouse genetics to the study of human longevity and will try to solve the puzzle of the biology of aging. According to David Botstein, Chief Scientific Officer of Calico and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the idea is that eventually the knowledge about healthspan and lifespan in animal models could be used to influence the aging process in humans.

Another company Calico is partnering with is the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, which is considered by some to be the world’s leading Geroscience organization. The collaboration is another example of biotechnology and the science of aging working hand in hand to achieve better results. Buck is working on developing potential therapies for age-related disease that could slow down aging.

There have been some speculations around the work of Calico and a lot of secrecy surrounds its mission and current progress. However, it has also been recognized that its highly skilled staff and numerous collaborations suggest that if a scientific breakthrough is to happen in the area of longevity, they are likely to be involved.

Smart Contact Lenses for Diabetes

At the moment, patients suffering from diabetes need to regularly check their blood sugar levels, usually by performing a finger prick test and drawing a drop of blood. A moonshot project from Google could make their inconvenient daily routine history. Development of smart contact lenses that are able to detect glucose levels in tears without breaking the skin may now be on its way. Interestingly, this technology builds on a discovery from 1930's when a group of French scientists showed that tears contain measurable levels of glucose. An early prototype of the smart lenses was unveiled in 2014. It contains a tiny wireless chip and a miniature glucosensor. It is designed to measure blood sugar levels as often as every second. The prototype still needs more work before becoming commercially available.

Researchers are now also working on integrating tiny LED lights that could serve as an early warning sign if the individual’s glucose levels either dropped or rose dangerously. Ideally, this information would get transmitted to an application on the wearer’s smartphone, so he or she receives the warning and is able to act on the information. Alternatively, the information could also be sent to a medical team.

When this technology hits the market, this invention could drastically improve the monitoring of diabetes and reduce related complications. There have already been talks with the FDA, and Google’s team is looking for partners that could help develop the app and integrate it with the smart lenses.

Artificial Vision to Solve the Problems of Eye Degeneration

This particular moonshot also involves the human eye, but focuses on vision. It has been established that 80 percent of what we perceive, comprehend, remember and plan is based on visual information. Professor Yael Hanein from Tel Aviv University, who presented at a Solve for X gathering, points out that since modern humans live much longer compared to their predecessors, they also experience more impairment connected with degeneration of their eye tissue than generations past. One of the most prevalent conditions is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), where the central part of the retina becomes degenerated. AMD is encountered in older people and leads to a loss of independence as people are no longer able to read, write and recognize faces.

To combat AMD — which is predicted to affect 5 million Americans by 2050 — Hanein’s team is proposing artificial vision. Just as cochlear implants have successfully been used in the ear, artificial vision could apply similar technology to solve the problem of eye degeneration. Prototypes of devices for artificial vision already exist. These early models allow people to see by transmitting electrical signals to the brain. The brain perceives this information as visual information. Over time, the brain gets more accustomed to the new type of information and uses it more effectively.

At the moment, eye implants are still very bulky. These devices have extensive wiring and often require an outside power source. According to Hanein, the moonshot thought is to compact the device, so it could neatly be inserted against the retina and remain there. For this to become reality, new materials are required that can stimulate the retina. One such material involves carbon nanotubes. Using this technology, an impaired retina has already been stimulated in a test situation to reconstruct visual information, but there are a lot more factors to consider before this technology can be used commercially.

 A Moonshot to Cure Cancer

This next project demonstrates that moonshot rhetoric is used outside of Google, too. Vice President Joe Biden was put in charge of a visionary plan to cure cancer. The plan involves reorganizing research and dedicating more resources to finding new treatment, as well as improving information sharing so that scientists can collaborate and work together. This project has significant backing, so it is likely that promising treatments, such as immunotherapy, will be accelerated and progressive research findings turned into real medicine faster than they are presently. Also, Biden vows to spread knowledge and treatment opportunities to the underserved, so all Americans can benefit from his moonshot effort.

As moonshot projects continue to grow in popularity, the knowledge and emerging technology spawned from these efforts can be brought together to create better health care as we move into the future — affordable, advanced, accessible and high quality.

Although moonshot projects appear astonishing and often encompass some of the most ambitious and courageous visions of humanity, there is clearly inherent risk. It has recently been reported that Google might be struggling to commercially justify some of its moonshot investments. When it comes to advanced technology, the payoff of moonshots might not be immediately imminent and in some cases even be non-existent. Google expects some of these financially challenged projects will deliver revenue at some point, but for most of these projects the monetization model is ill-defined. One can argue that transformational moonshots — groundbreaking science — may not adhere to a traditional business model; rather, these ambitious endeavors need different standards and markers of success. That is because when moonshots work these endeavors move mankind forward in ways most of us had a hard time even imagining before the project was successful. 


Google X.

Solve for X 2014: Celebrating and accelerating moonshot pioneers.


We Solve for X - Yael Hanein - Artificial Solar Retina.

Inspiring a New Generation to Defy the Bounds of Innovation: A Moonshot to Cure Cancer.

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