Alphabet is taking on health care with a bunch of projects – here are some of the most ambitious

  • Alphabet is dabbling in a wide range of health-care projects across its different companies, including Verily and Calico.
  • Some are farther along and have a real shot at having an impact, while others are wildly speculative.
  • On Wednesday, Alphabet announced a new effort to take on the opioid crisis.
A man walks past the brand logo of Alphabet Inc's Google outside its office in Beijing, China, August 8, 2018. 
Thomas Peter | Reuters
A man walks past the brand logo of Alphabet Inc's Google outside its office in Beijing, China, August 8, 2018. 

Alphabet's Verily unit said on Wednesday that's it taking on the opioid crisis, joining with two health networks to build a tech-infused rehab campus in Dayton, Ohio.

Verily is one of Alphabet's "Other Bets," and marks its most advanced effort in the health-care market. But long before Alphabet was created as the parent company of Google and its side projects in 2015, the internet giant was dabbling in health. In 2008, there was the launch of Google Health, a site that failed because consumers weren't willing to upload their personal data.

Far from being deterred, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have doubled down on health, investing in a variety of different ventures. Calico, part of the Other Bets segment, is focused on anti-aging research.

Some of this stuff is pretty wild and very risky. One project — a glucose sensing contact lens — has already shut down because the technology didn't ultimately work. Others are already selling to customers. Employees expect the volatility and, as we learned in Alphabet's earnings report this week, Alphabet treats Other Bets like start-ups, issuing equity in a way that's not strictly tied to the value of publicly traded Alphabet shares.

Here are five of the more ambitious health-care efforts that Alphabet is undertaking:

Utensils for people with movement disorders

Verily acquired Lift Labs in 2014, to build out technology for people with movement disorders and help them eat independently.

The Liftware spoon incorporates sensors on both sides of the handle so that the utensil stabilizes even if the user's hand moves around or tremors. Verily says the attachment "shakes 70% less than your hand." Its starter kits cost about $200.

Liftware by Lift Labs
Source: Lift Labs
Liftware by Lift Labs

Tech to fight mosquitoes

Another Verily project – Debug – is releasing mosquitoes in Fresno, California, in a bid to rid the county of the insects. Verily's proposal is to cut down on a specific type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, which is known to spread Zika and other viruses, by only releasing male mosquitoes that have been sterilized with a bacteria called Wolbachia pipientis. If local females mate with these sterile males, the population will drop.

Verily's role is to develop the technology that helps sort the female from male mosquitoes, work that traditionally was mostly done by human experts. The experiment has been ramping up in recent years. You can read more about it here.

A mosquito used for Zika research.
Getty Images

Prediction algorithms for when you might get sick

Google is committed to using its machine learning technology in health care. Just one of a handful of projects underway at Google Brain, its research group, involves figuring out potential medical events based on a massive store of clinical data provided by local Bay Area hospitals. Its computers might soon determine whether patients are at a higher risk of a potentially life-threatening disease like sepsis, or are more likely to be readmitted to the hospital after discharge. More on that effort here.

It's also working on an app called Streams through its DeepMind group, which was recently absorbed back into Google. That product, which has been in the works for years, is designed to help doctors identify early signs of kidney failure and other ailments.

Demis Hassabis, co-founder of Google's artificial intelligence (AI) startup DeepMind.
Jeon Heon-Kyun | Getty Images
Demis Hassabis, co-founder of Google's artificial intelligence (AI) startup DeepMind.

Figuring out what's normal

Most clinical studies work by determining a set period of time, say six weeks, and closely measuring how people fare with a new intervention compared to those in a control group.

Verily is trying something different. Project Baseline, in partnership with Stanford Medicine and Duke University, collects data from 10,000 people over the course of four years and analyze the information using modern technologies.

Albert Chan, chief of digital patient experience at Sutter Health, said that one of they key potential benefits of so-called longitudinal studies is for doctors to get a better sense of what's normal when it comes to patient health.

"That's not always easy to define," Chan said. "Understanding that in greater depth could help us understand what's not normal – disease."

Recombinetics is working on improving human health and agriculture practices with precision gene editing.
Jeniece Pettitt I CNBC
Recombinetics is working on improving human health and agriculture practices with precision gene editing.

Making Dr. Google a bit smarter

Ever searched for symptoms on Google and subsequently freaked out that you might be dying of a brain tumor? Google is invariably the starting point for a lot of health-related searches, so it's trying to get smarter about the content it serves to users. It's doing that with the help of top medical institutions, like Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic.

Google now analyzes health content from sites across the web and is working with a team of doctors to review that information. Licensed medical illustrators will then create visuals for a special pop-up indicating "health conditions related to this search." In 2017, the company went a step further, introducing a special clinical depression test via its search page called PHQ-9 for people conducting searches on the topic.

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Leon Neal | AFP | Getty Images