SAN FRANCISCO — The chief medical officer of Verily Life Sciences, Google’s biotech spinoff, responded Tuesday to a recent STAT article that detailed doubts by prominent scientists about the chances her company’s highest-profile projects would succeed.
Dr. Jessica Mega said Verily was trying to build a “creative environment” that allowed for failures as well as successes. “The freedom to think big … it’s a real gift,” she added during a panel discussion at at the BIO International Convention, a biotech industry conference.
“To create these ‘what if’ moments takes inspiration, it takes courage, it takes dynamic leadership,” she said in response to questions about claims made by Verily CEO Andrew Conrad.
On Monday, STAT reported that scientists and former Verily employees had raised serious concerns about Conrad’s statements that the company was close to producing a cancer-detection device similar to Star Trek’s iconic “Tricorder” diagnostic wizard. He estimated that the device would be used by patients and doctors within a few years, while one expert called the concept “science fantasy.”
The article was part of a series that documented morale problems, departures of high-level engineers and scientists, and exaggerated claims by Conrad that have driven skepticism about the company’s plans.
When asked by STAT whether Conrad’s Tricorder claims had gone over the edge from optimism and great aspirations into hype, Mega did not respond directly, instead emphasizing the need to work rapidly towards lofty aspirations, yet honor the often slow, methodical process of biotech discovery.
Mega heads Verily’s billion-dollar “Baseline” study, intended to define what it means to be healthy and to find very early markers of cancer and heart disease. The project will collect psychosocial, genetic, geospatial, microbiome, and a raft of other data from 10,000 subjects over five years. But several prominent researchers said Baseline was too small and too short in duration to accomplish its main goals.
In an interview with a STAT reporter Monday, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf — who previously headed the Baseline effort at Verily contractor Duke University — defended the effort.
He said it was meant to go “deep, in a small group of people, to know everything about them — understand their genetics, their genomics, physiological monitoring, all of that.”
As for the skepticism voiced about the study by other experts, Califf said, “What I tell trainees is that if you’re doing clinical research and you’re not being criticized, you’re probably not doing anything important.”
Scientific experts have also suggested that Verily’s effort to create a contact lens that accurately senses glucose levels — and thereby saves diabetics the trouble of frequent needle sticks to calibrate insulin and food intake — is far-fetched.
Meghana Keshavan contributed reporting.