Google picks Biogen Idec MS project for research partnership

By Fiona BARRY

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Biogen idec Pharmaceutical industry

Google's next target is multiple sclerosis.
Google's next target is multiple sclerosis.
Google and Biogen Idec are teaming up to crack multiple sclerosis, the latest crossover between pharma and the wearables world.

Biogen Idec and Google X, the internet giant’s futuristic technology arm, will gather and analyse data on why multiple sclerosis progresses differently in individual patients.

“Two patients with similar MS symptoms today could have very different lives in a few years, with one in a wheelchair and one playing daily games of tennis,” ​said Google. 

“Researchers have been eager to find new, more precise ways to understand how the disease affects individuals over time, but the information available to them has been limited to what’s gathered during office visits or via self-reporting.”

The project will create “prototypes of new tools and technologies that could be used by patients in clinical studies​” to improve patient outcome predictions, said the partners.

It’s possible, for example, that a patient’s immune system, or gait, or sleep patterns (or a variety of other subtle biological changes) are revealing subtle clues, but researchers haven’t had the tools to collect this information or study it for trends.”

The companies would not be drawn on what “tools and technologies​” they plan to work with, but a tech expert told the evidence points to data-gathering wearables.

Biogen Idec have done various wearable-based partnerships before, trying to leverage data, such as [personal metrics tracker] Fitbit,​” said James Moar, Research Analyst, Juniper.

Google has already collaborated with the pharma industry on wearables. Last year, it announced a partnership with Novartis on “smart” contact lenses​ which wirelessly measure diabetics’ blood sugar levels. The company is also working on a project​ to send diagnostic nanoparticles into the patient’s bloodstream and monitor them with a wrist sensor.

But Google has clear limits on its involvement in pharma development, Moar told us.

What’s interesting is Google is doing its best to be medical but still skirting around the regulatory side.

One of the big showcase uses for Google Glass was [use by doctors] in surgery – but that doesn’t need to be regulated as a medical device as such, in the same way that you don’t need to get FDA approval for medical scalpels.​”

It’s the same with contact lenses for diabetes – these don’t need to be regulated in the same way [as a drug or delivery device] because diabetes is largely self-medicating;  you’re not relying on the device for a precise medical dosage.​”

Whatever discoveries come out of the Biogen partnership, the same boundaries will apply, said Moar.

If they do roll out a device, it’s not going to be one that will treat a condition, it’s going to be assessment and tracking rather than treatment, which avoids the regulatory requirements.

I think Google’s probably going to continue on that line, because they said before they don’t want to be a drug company, they want to be an R&D partner for the pharma industry. So whether or not they’re going to be dealing with any of the final products is still an open question.

I think the end result of this partnership will not be a device, it’s to understand the progression of MS so that more efficient drugs can be developed to counteract the disease.​”

Future collaborations?

As Google continues to enter the pharma space, the industry can be sure the company’s next collaborations will continue to be ambitious.

They’re going for the big questions,​” said Moar. “You’ve got MS which no one really understands the progression of, and measuring blood sugar non-invasively is a huge goal in diabetes. So  they’re looking at the odd, obscure hard to crack cases.

Google X is not afraid to fail because when they win, they win big. They go after the more obscure cases because when they do hit on an answer it’s going to be more game-changing than the small projects which everyone already understands.​”

Google X’s non-pharma works-in-progress include a self-driving car, drone delivery, spoons which counteract Parkinson’s tremors (Lift Labs), and internet connection via balloons in the stratosphere (Project Loon).

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