October 1, 2015 (Vol. 35, No. 17)
Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
After Conquering the Internet, Search Giant Targets Disease with Tech, Tools, and More
Google promised its would-be investors a future of expansion well beyond Internet searches over a decade ago, declaring in its 2004 initial public offering: “We will not hesitate to place major bets on promising new opportunities.”
With several developments in August, Google left no doubt that it views among those promising new opportunities a position of prominence within the life sciences.
Google placed its most recent major bet in life sciences August 31, when it joined Sanofi in launching a collaboration with Joslin Diabetes Center focused on developing new digital technology and tools for diabetes.
The partners aim to use data and miniaturized technology to provide patients with more tools to self-manage their disease, and healthcare professionals with the ability to better support and treat patients.
“One of our key roles will be to ensure that the vast amounts of data that are being collected, analyzed and integrated across multiple sources of information can be clinically translated so that it is useful, intelligible, intuitive, and easy for patients, their families, and their care teams to use,” Joslin president and CEO John L. Brooks, III said. “This will help patients to successfully manage their diabetes 24/7, hence reducing complications, and improving outcomes, quality of life, and ultimately lowering costs.”
“Details around specific patient sourcing, etc. have not been decided on at this point,” Brooks added.
Taking Aim at Diabetes
“Diabetes is a major focus area for the life sciences team at Google as we become a standalone company,” a Google spokesperson told GEN. “Our approach includes complementary partnerships that work to make existing technology better, try to invent new technology, and aim to create better access to and understanding of information.”
The collaboration surfaced nearly two weeks after Google co-founder Sergey Brin disclosed plans to spin out the life sciences team from Google’s laboratory for moonshots or “Google[x]” into a separate company headed by Andy Conrad, Ph.D.
Google’s life sciences team consists of “more than 150 scientists working on a wide spectrum of healthcare-related projects,” according to Dr. Conrad’s bio. In his August 20 announcement, Brin said of the scientists: “They’ll continue to work with other life sciences companies to move new technologies from early stage R&D to clinical testing—and, hopefully—transform the way we detect, prevent, and manage disease.”
Already, Google’s life sciences team has pursued several technology projects against diabetes. Google is joining Dexcom to develop next-generation versions of its continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which CEO and president Kevin Sayer told analysts on August 11 will be much “substantially smaller and much less expensive” than existing CGMs. The new CGMs will combine Google’s miniaturized electronics platform with Dexcom’s sensor technology.
“Ultimately, it will replace our current transmitter—at least we hope it will—with a low-cost, flexible, bandage-sized electronics configuration,” Sayer said.
Dexcom and Google expect their first co-developed product to be commercialized in two to three years and a second product within five years. Dexcom agreed to pay Google $35 million upfront in Dexcom common stock, up to $65 million in development and regulatory milestones payments in Dexcom’s choice of cash or stock, and single-digit royalties to Google for sales exceeding $750 million.
Also targeting diabetes is the “smart” contact lens Google disclosed last year, being co-developed with Novartis’ Alcon eye care division. The lens is designed to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material.
“The non-invasive way of testing will certainly create a breakthrough for the diabetes diagnostics space. Google chose the right partner in Alcon,” Divyaa Ravishankar, healthcare & life sciences senior industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan, explained.
Harry Glorikian, a life sciences and healthcare industry consultant, told GEN he doesn’t see Google having much impact in life sciences short-term: “Longer term, if they are successful in cracking the contact lens project then they can begin to generate revenue and be more self-sufficient. And yes, that will have an impact on patient health and wellness. As with all ventures like this, it depends on people, money, and timing. All three must be managed appropriately.”
Google’s life-sci ambitions go well beyond diabetes. In June, Google revealed it was developing a wristband to track patients’ vital signs—including heart rhythm, pulse, and skin temperature—plus light exposure and noise levels. “Our intended use is for this to become a medical device that’s prescribed to patients or used for clinical trials,” Dr. Conrad told Bloomberg News.
Another area where Google aspires to impact life sciences is genetic testing. Last year, Google[x] launched its Baseline Study to collect anonymous genetic and molecular information from thousands of people, starting with a 175-patient pilot study involving Duke University and Stanford University. Google told TechCrunch in June it will expand the study, and is testing apps for iOS and Android to collect the data, called the “Study Kit.”
Also in June, Google Genomics joined the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to develop computing infrastructure to store and process enormous genomic datasets, using the web-based application programming interface for genomic data Google launched last year.
Additionally, Google is developing a nanodiagnostics platform for early detection of disease. “You can use these nanoparticles to detect rare things like a cancer cell or you can use them to measure common molecules,” such as sodium, by fluorescence, Dr. Conrad told Medium last year. “By collecting those nanoparticles at your wrist, where you have a device that detects these changes, we can see what color they’re glowing, and that way you can tell the concentration of sodium.”
Other Google life-sci team projects include the Liftware stabilizing handle, spoon and fork attachments for people with hand tremor; and robotic-assisted surgical tools being developed with Johnson & Johnson. As it evolves into a separate standalone company, Google Life Sciences will be one of several within the umbrella of Alphabet Inc., the new holding company announced August 10 by Larry Page, Google CEO and co-founder. Page will run Alphabet as CEO with Brin as president.
“To the extent that Google can bring skills like artificial intelligence and machine learning to the field, it may be able to add something traditional companies in the field can’t easily do themselves,” Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, told GEN. “Other than that, it’s hard to see how Google is going to be able to have a significant impact.”
Beyond Tools and Tech
Also within Alphabet is Calico, a company separate from the spinout, focused on aging research and therapeutics development for patients with age-related diseases. From its founding in 2013 through June 30, Google had contributed $240 million to Calico in exchange for convertible preferred units, and had also committed to fund an additional $490 million on an as-needed basis, according to Google’s second-quarter Form 10-Q filing.
Calico’s largest partnership, launched last year, is its up-to-$1.5 billion R&D collaboration with AbbVie, intended to help the companies discover, develop, and bring to market new therapies for patients with age-related diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer. As of June 30, AbbVie contributed $750 million, while Calico chipped in $250 million with a commitment of up to an additional $500 million.
Over the past year, Calico has established research collaborations with partners that include the Buck Institute for Research on Aging; the University of California (UC) institute QB3; UC San Francisco; the Broad Institute—and most recently in July, AncestryDNA.
Calico’s R&D efforts contrast with the life-sci team’s focus on far-out tech and tools. As a result, there doesn’t appear to be as much opportunity for integrative projects between Calico and the new life-sci company compared with life sciences, where multiple technologies can be deployed against a common target, such as diabetes.
Diabetes shows Google’s interest in partnering with drug developers focused on the disease. Sanofi in March introduced Toujeo, a new formulation of its basal insulin Lantus, which lost U.S. API exclusivity in February. Alcon’s parent Novartis this year launched collaborations that could replace injections with new oral treatments, from cell therapy with Semma Therapeutics, to an ingestible pill with Rani Therapeutics.
Rani is one of 17 life-sci or healthcare tech startups among more than 300 backed by Google Ventures, another significant arrow in Google’s life-sci quiver. Google Ventures says funding decisions are independent of Google, but adds that it’s also Google-backed: “Our relationship with Google means unique access for our portfolio companies—to some of the world’s best engineers, scientists, and technology.”
Ravishankar noted that Google-funded 23andMe has created the largest database of individuals consenting to participate in genetic research, and in March created a therapeutics group headed by retired Genentech executive Richard Scheller, Ph.D.
“Google has certainly set a footprint in some of the high growth market areas such as diabetes monitoring and genetic testing,” Ravishankar said. “Somewhere in the future, I sense Google will introduce what I would call Google Maps for human genomes.”