Google Dives Into Genomics Research

Google makes a commitment to help with genomics research by joining the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health.

Genomics research

Google is expanding its involvement in medical science around the world by joining the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health as part of an effort to expand and advance genomics research that could keep humans healthier.

Google's new membership in the group, which was formed in 2013, was announced by Jonathan Bingham, a Google product manager, in a Feb. 27 post on the Google Research Blog.

"Generating research data is easier than ever before, but interpreting and analyzing it is still hard, and getting harder as the volume increases," wrote Bingham. "This is especially true of genomics. Sequencing the whole genome of a single person produces more than 100 gigabytes of raw data, and a million genomes will add up to more than 100 petabytes. In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed after 15 years and $3 billion. Today, it takes closer to one day and $1,000 to sequence a human genome."

All of this information "carries great potential for research and human health—and requires new standards, policies and technology," he wrote. "That's why Google has joined the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health. The Alliance is an international effort to develop harmonized approaches to enable responsible, secure, and effective sharing of genomic and clinical information in the cloud with the research and health care communities, meeting the highest standards of ethics and privacy."

Some 146 organizations from some 21 countries around the world are members of the group so far, including Boston Children's Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, California Institute of Technology, Canada Health Infoway, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Genome Institute of Singapore, Harvard University, Indian Society of Human Genetics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Melbourne Genomics Health Alliance, New York Genome Center, Osaka University, Graduate School of Medicine, SIB-Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Spanish Institute of Bioinformatics, Spanish National Cancer Research Center, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Stanford University, University of California Health System and the University of Cape Town.

As part of its efforts to bring innovation to the genomics alliance, Google is proposing the use of a simple Web-based API to import, process, store and search genomic data at scale, as well as a collection of in-progress open-source sample projects built around the common API, wrote Bingham. Google has also unveiled a preview implementation of the API built on Google's cloud infrastructure, including sample data from public data sets like the 1,000 Genomes Project, he wrote.

"With these first steps, it is our goal to support the global research community in bringing the vision of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health to fruition," he wrote. "Imagine the impact if researchers everywhere had larger sample sizes to distinguish between people who become sick and those who remain healthy, between patients who respond to treatment and those whose condition worsens, between pathogens that cause outbreaks and those that are harmless. Imagine if they could test biological hypotheses in seconds instead of days, without owning a supercomputer."

Google is making the API available to researchers who want to use it, wrote Bingham. "Together with the members of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, we believe we are at the beginning of a transformation in medicine and basic research, driven by advances in genome sequencing."

In September 2013, Google launched a new health care company, called Calico, to find ways to improve the health and extend the lives of human beings. The startup is focusing on health and well-being, and in particular, the challenge of aging and its associated diseases, according to Google.

Calico wasn't the first health care-related push undertaken by Google. Back in 2008, Google launched its Google Health initiative, which aimed to help patients access their personal health records no matter where they were, from any computing device, through a secure portal hosted by Google and its partners, according to earlier eWEEK reports. Google Health shut down in January 2013.