Skip to main content

A Hospital for Sick Children project known as CALIPER is profiling blood samples.

Canadian experts have concerns about a report that Google Inc. is planning to create a map of the biomarkers in the "healthy" human genome.

Researchers have told The Globe and Mail they would welcome the search giant to this area of study, which they say is underfunded, but they questioned how useful Google's project would be based on the relatively small number of people it would involve (just 175 initially).

They also wondered how the researchers would protect the subjects' privacy, and whether the data would be available to other researchers.

The leader of the genome study, known as Project Baseline, told the Wall Street Journal this week that it will be run out of Google X, the search engine company's research arm, which has produced such "moonshot" projects as the self-driving car and Google Glass face computers.

Project lead Andrew Conrad – who said he had amassed dozens of biochemistry, optics and molecular biology experts – speculated that the study might find genetic keys to fighting obesity, or markers that can detect cancer and heart disease early.

In such a study, researchers take tissue samples from subjects and sequence their DNA. The Google team plans to create a database that will serve as a profile, or baseline, for the genetic components of good health.

Google said on Friday that no one from the company would be commenting on the project.

Khosrow Adeli, professor of clinical biochemistry at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, points out that "baseline" is not as simple a concept as it may sound.

"You'd be surprised to learn that we have very little information on what is the baseline or reference when it comes to many, many things," he said.

A SickKids project documenting clinical baselines for children found variations wrought by environment and gender, or age and ethnicity, can complicate attempts to define "normal," and that children have different clinical biomarkers than adults.

Over the past five years, Dr. Adeli profiled 8,600 blood samples for a project known as CALIPER (Canadian Laboratory Initiative on Paediatric Reference Intervals), which produced a database that can be used in more than 150 different clinical tests for illness in children.

The database is available on iTunes in a recently released app.

Dr. Adeli said the idea that one reference point can be established for all of humanity does not account for differences.

"In my view, every country should have a large health survey of their population and determine these baselines for adult and child populations," he said.

Similar projects to CALIPER are under way in Germany, Scandanavia and Australia. One positive result of Google's work might be that it "may induce others to actually become interested and get involved," Dr. Adeli said.

Other researchers expressed concern that Google might not make its findings public.

"I don't know their agenda, the issue here would be the transparency, are they going to make all this data available?" said Dr. George Yousef of St. Michael's Hospital.

Privacy of the data is another issue, said Igor Jurisica, a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, whose lab at the IBM Life Sciences Discovery Center specializes in the complex bioinformatics necessary to analyze millions of possible biomarker interactions.

Even though Google said subjects would remain anonymous, Dr. Jurisica cautions that an individual could be identified from the genetic data.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe