In the future, healthcare wristbands may not be limited to measuring signs of illness and making live patient data available to physicians. Google’s plans for wearable devices that target substances in human blood underline how wristbands could play a major role in the early detection of chronic diseases. By the vendor’s own admission, it will take a number of years (or even decades) for such devices to become commercially available and other treatment alternatives, such as immunotherapy and targeted drugs, are far more advanced in terms of clinical trials and validity. Furthermore, the idea of using wearable devices to treat medical conditions with external energy sources is speculative.
Partnerships will be key if Google is to gain clinical validity
In March 2015, Google received a patent for the concept of a wearable device that uses energy sources to target substances – including cancer cells and proteins linked to Parkinson’s disease – in human blood. The vendor claims the device will take the form of a wristband that works in combination with a cancer-detecting pill to search for tumor cells in the body. The pill will produce nanoparticles that detect cells and report findings to a sensor in the wristband. The wristband will then use a magnetic field to coagulate cells to identify, modify, and target them using an external source of energy. The energy source could be a radio frequency, an acoustic pulse, a time-varying magnetic field, infrared, or a visible light signal.
Because the device will have the potential to detect cancer and other chronic conditions at an early stage, it could enable preventive rather than reactive care. Google has the opportunity to partner with life sciences companies to enhance the capabilities of its wearable devices and create a new revenue stream in a market crowded with fitness bands and smartwatches. Whether a wearable device could selectively target cells and substances in the human body to cure medical conditions, however, is subject to debate.
Google will have to embark on a long journey to gain clinical validity in a highly regulated healthcare industry. It will need to work closely with life sciences companies and medical research institutions. The vendor needs to address questions ranging from how such a device can work within the broader diagnosis process to how safe it will be when treating medical conditions (even if it is only partially automatic). At this stage, the detection aspects of the device are far easier to define than its potential curative role, which, similar to other Google X activity, is more of a long shot.
Rather than manufacturing devices and capitalizing on sales, Google often uses innovative technology to fuel an ecosystem of devices that leverages its own OS platform. Gaining clinical validity can therefore be handled by the OEM partners themselves. We could see Google using such technology as an opportunity to create Android partnerships with medical-device providers.
“FitBit IPO: Decline in demand for fitness bands might play spoilsport,” IT0011-000360 (June 2015)
“Apple’s ResearchKit is off to a good start, but critical aspects will require further work,” IT0011-000352 (April 2015)
Consumer Wearables Forecast: 2014–20, TE0004-001014
Srikanth Venkataraman, Analyst, Healthcare Technology