Back in 2013, Google announced that it planned to turn the Tricorder, Star Trek's diagnostic wonder tool, from science fiction into reality. An executive promised that a working prototype that could detect cancer early-on would be ready in just six months.
Three years later, the device is still a fantasy. And it's not the only one.
Google's biotech division Verily—formerly known as Google Life Sciences—launched in 2013 with ambitions of using technology to help tackle major global health problems. Beyond the cancer-detecting Tricorder, its biggest bets were a glucose-sensing contact lens for diabetics that would replace their frequent blood tests and a billion-dollar “Baseline” study of human health that would define what it means to be healthy (making it easier to identify early signs of disease).
In an in-depth investigation, STAT, a science and health website owned by The Boston Globe, found that these three signature projects are all "plagued by serious, if not fatal, scientific shortcomings."
It's not the first time Verily's business has been questioned. In a December article about the company, Recode quoted a bio-tech investor who said Verily's ambitions outstripped evidence of working products. “They’re very good at PR. They use every possible buzzword,” the investor told Recode. But STAT's investigation includes interviews with several former Verily employees and independent scientists, who expressed skepticism that Google's biotech projects have much more behind them than hype.
One scientist called the Tricorder project "science fantasy.” Former employees told STAT that "the Tricorder has been seen internally more as a way to generate buzz than as a viable project." But that's not how Verily CEO Andrew Conrad described it in public. Via STAT:
Conrad said a patient would swallow a pill full of magnetic nanoparticles engineered to grab on to tumor cells floating in the bloodstream and light up when they do. A wristband magnet would concentrate the particles and their captured cells inside adjacent veins, then periodically read their fluorescent signals. Conrad said most of the system operated seamlessly in the lab.
The particles were so safe, he said, that animal testing could be skipped. Conrad provided no details beyond conceptual patents, and Verily scientists have published no scholarly papers on the device. Still, media coverage portrayed Google’s upstart biotech venture as the vanguard of a medical revolution.
"Any time someone tries to tell you that a new biomedical technology works so great that it doesn’t even have to be run through a rat, you should probably start heading for the exits," commented pharma blogger Derek Lowe.
A former Verily employee also cast doubt on the glucose-sensing lenses, though press releases from the company have suggested the project is humming along. The employee told STAT that the prototype didn't actually work, calling it “slideware”—"a Silicon Valley term for breakthroughs that exist only on PowerPoint images." This doesn't come as a surprise, said scientists, because tears are not as efficient at measuring glucose levels as blood.
Independent scientists also told STAT that plans for the Baseline study are riddled with flaws—among them that the study is neither long enough nor large enough to produce the findings Google hopes for.
All of this raises questions of whether Google's Verily is another Theranos—a Silicon Valley company promising moonshots without the scientific know-how to deliver them.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. STAT points out that while Verily's most futuristic projects may be fumbling, in other areas, like robotic surgery, Verily has had great success.
In an interview with Bloomberg the day after the STAT piece, reporter Emily Chang asked Verily chief medical officer Jessica Mega how the company should "manage" the expectations of the public after failures of other biotech companies like Theranos.
"Scientific rigor is always going to be at the core of what we do," she said, before emphasizing the need for Verily to be transparent with the public.
If Verily can one day make projects like the glucose-sensing contact lenses work, it will no doubt change many lives for the better. Mega, in her Bloomberg interview, was right that tackling problems of this size requires significant investments of time, money, creativity, and probably a fair amount of sheer will, too.
But she was also right that transparency is needed. The unraveling of Theranos was a wake-up call, reminding us that scientific claims, be they from Theranos, Verily or university scientists, require diligent scrutiny. The challenge in scrutinizing a company like Verily is that its scientists haven't published scholarly work on the Tricorder, for example, making it difficult to assess what's been achieved.
The human body is not a gadget; if it seems far-fetched to just whip up a device you strap to your wrist that can detect cancer, that's because it is. At this point, it's hard to tell whether Verily's moonshots are really more like shots in the dark.