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Google X project has lofty goal: Prevent disease

Google's audacious research arm has already invested in driverless cars and Wi-Fi balloons. Now a new "moon shot" will try to tackle health care by examining what it means to be healthy.

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Google has often looked skyward with its most ambitious initiatives -- high-flying Wi-Fi balloons and high quality satellite imaging among them. But the company's newest project looks almost as inward as you can: down to the molecules of the human body.

A new study called Baseline will anonymously collect molecular and genetic information from 175 volunteer participants. The Wall Street Journal reported news of the study Thursday evening. The study is in pilot stages for now but will later expand to include thousands of participants.

The goal of the study is to learn enough about the human body to be able to detect fatal diseases like cancer or heart disease earlier, so treatment is more preventative and not reactive. The study will be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board -- independent ethics committees that review medical research involving humans.

The project is run by Dr. Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist who joined Google X, which oversees many of the company's most audacious projects, in March 2013. "This research could give us clues about how the human body stays healthy or becomes sick, which could in turn unlock insights into how diseases could be better detected or treated," Conrad said in a statement.

Google X is home to many of the company's so-called "moon shots" -- experimental initiatives meant to push technology forward in leaps. Other than Baseline and Wi-Fi balloons aimed at beaming Internet service to rural areas, they also include driverless cars operated by software and Google Glass, a connected headset that mounts a computer screen in front of a wearer's eyes.

Once the study gains more steam, review boards from the medical schools at Duke and Stanford will control how the information is used.

Any probe into personal data -- especially data as intimate as genetic information -- quickly raises concerns about privacy. Google, which makes the bulk of its revenue on advertising, lives on knowing information about its users, including where they travel on a map or what they search for online. Google stressed that the information culled from Baseline will be anonymous and will be used only for medical purposes. Other uses of the data are allowed only if a participant grants explicit consent, and it is approved by the institutional review board. The company also confirmed that the data will not be shared with insurance companies.

The medical initiative is not the only time Google's ever-expanding scope has raised questions. Privacy advocates made their voices heard in January after the company announced it was buying Nest, the maker of smart-home devices. They're concerned about the amount of personal data Google could conceivably get its hands on.

Google will use its expertise with software to push Baseline's research forward. After the data is collected, the company will use computing power to try to identify patterns, or "biomarkers," in the data. The company has also developed more wearable devices for participants to use that track information like heart rate and oxygen levels.

Participants will also use smart contact lenses that Google had already announced, which track glucose levels. Earlier this month, the pharmaceutical company Novartis announced that it's partnering with Google to license the technology and produce the lenses.

Updated, 2:28 p.m. PT: Adds more information about institutional review boards.