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'More Complex and Less Predictable'

The ambitious projects being pursued by Verily, Google's life science company, might not be going as well as hoped or promoted, employees and contractors tell Stat News.

The company has been seeking to develop a so-called 'Tricorder' as a diagnostic tool, contact lenses to gauge blood glucose levels in diabetic patients, and embarking on a clinical study called Baseline to define a healthy person, but Stat News reports that these projects have run into problems.

"It's axiomatic in Silicon Valley's tech companies that if the math and the coding can be done, the product can be made," it says. "But seven former Verily employees said the company's leadership often seems not to grasp the reality that biology can be more complex and less predictable than computers."

According to an announcement by Verily's Andrew Conrad, the Tricorder Project, which was unveiled in 2014, relies on a patient taking a pill of magnetic nanoparticles that then attach to cancer cells in the blood and light up. A magnetic wristband attracts those particles and reads their fluorescent signals. Conrad said it worked well in the lab and that the particles were so safe that animal testing was unnecessary, according to Stat News.

That's given a few people pause. "[A]ny time someone tries to tell you that a new biomedical technology works so great that it doesn't even have to be run through a rat, you should probably start heading for the exits," writes Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline.

Tufts University's David Walt adds at Stat News that Tricorder approach faces a number of technical challenges such as getting nanoparticles to circulate long enough to be detected, determining whether magnetic particles affect blood flow, and dealing with false positives.

Meanwhile, the Baseline Project, which aims to gather psychosocial, molecular, imaging, genetic, and microbiome data from 10,000 people over five years, might not be big enough or long enough to meet its stated goal of determining what it means to be healthy and spotting early signs of disease, even with Google's data-mining prowess, Stat News adds.

"We already have quite a lot of experience in the last 10 years working with multidimensional data," John Ioannidis from Stanford University tells Stat News. "If you look at how much of that has moved to clinical application, it's close to nil."

Verily tells Stat News in a statement that it has hired "many seasoned and respected industry, academic, public health, and regulatory veterans who understand the complexity of biology and how long it takes to move from idea to device and/or therapy."