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As U.S. Looks to Launch Precision Health Study, Google’s Role Emerges

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that it’s early days, and not all details have been worked out—even though the launch is planned for November.

Their answers describe existing Google infrastructure and expertise, with other layers added by Verily. For example, Mega said Verily would “leverage” core technology at Alphabet but also would bring engineers “dedicated to understanding” the range of health data types that the PMI eventually hopes to coordinate. When asked for an example, Verily spokeswoman Carolyn Wang noted that her group has built an experimental genomic analysis tool called dv42 “that uses deep learning on Google infrastructure to identify genetic variants.”

(Verily chief technology officer Brian Otis, whose background is in wireless sensors and wearable devices, said he wasn’t close enough to the PMI project to comment.)

Xconomy asked Verily’s partners if they had insights into Verily’s potential contributions. Other than citing the use of Google Cloud, Vanderbilt’s Denny preferred not to comment.

Sekar Kathiresan, a cardiologist and Broad Institute geneticist who is working on the PMI center, said one example could be simpler versions of sophisticated data visualization tools that “citizen scientists”—not just researchers in academia and industry—can use. “For example, citizen scientists might want to look at all people who have heart attacks before the age of 45,” analyze their other health patterns, or compare them to other groups, said Kathiresan. “We will enable that kind of query that’s literally like checking boxes. If [Google] can do it for maps, I think they can work with us to do it with health data.”

Meanwhile, two leaders of another part of the Precision Medicine Initiative recently published a paper that raised concerns about the rapid move of Google and other tech companies into health care.

In a Nature commentary titled “Stop The Privatization of Health Data,” Scripps Research Institute professor of genomics Eric Topol and John Wilbanks, the chief commons officer of Sage Bionetworks, wrote that huge tech companies bring necessary skills to increasingly complex health data work. “Yet there is a major downside to monoliths such as Google or smaller companies such as consumer-genetics firm 23andMe owning health data—or indeed, controlling the tools and methods used to match people’s digital health profiles to specific services,” they wrote. The concerns include biased profiling, unauthorized use of personal data for marketing (as Web advertising already does), and obstruction of broader research goals. (23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki replied online that 23andMe customers own their own data.)

Topol and Wilbanks are proponents of individuals owning their own health data, a view Xconomy described last year. In that regard, their worries about big tech don’t directly apply to Google’s work on the PMI, whose leaders have insisted that volunteers have unfettered access to their own data and to the results that come from PMI-related research.

But their concern is not just about data ownership. It’s also about the “tools and methods,” as Topol and Wilbanks wrote, to analyze the data. They noted the “black box” problem: sophisticated algorithms that drive deep data analysis in many fields—retail, advertising, law enforcement—can reinforce human biases in troubling ways.

Even with the PMI health data open to all, if Google is contributing proprietary algorithms to the research toolkit, that could be a problem, Topol said. “Tech companies have immense power with their algorithms,” he said. But he also noted that the “Google-slash-Verily folks knew exactly what the mission is” when awarded the data research center contract. “They knew the ground rules were, ‘This is an open transparent journey’; they knew what they were getting into.”

The NIH’s James McClain, who is overseeing part of the PMI, said it’s a goal of the program that the technology used to translate raw data into analysis should be “documented and fully understood. We’re moving in a direction where we expect that level of transparency,” McClain said.

When asked about data-mining algorithms, Verily spokeswoman Wang said Verily wants to help build a data platform that lets researchers “run their own analytics.”

“Over time, we will have a better sense about what Verily’s additional contributions may be to PMI,” Wang said.

Other questions about Google’s involvement revolve around security and privacy, which the Broad’s Kathiresan called a “big, big challenge.” The project must conform to government cybersecurity standards. Google has formidable security chops. But the PMI center must also be built with a feature no health study has tried before: a “two-way” structure that permits data to flow back to volunteers. Vanderbilt’s Denny called access to one’s own data “a complex and important question. The shortest thing to say is we highly value that ability. But we don’t know all the answers. We have tiny amounts of data now. We’ll have ridiculous amounts in the future.”

Verily will build specialized security software on top of the Google Cloud infrastructure, Verily spokeswoman Wang said.

Security experts will be watching closely. With PMI, the government has an opportunity to “set a gold standard” for … Next Page »

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