Diabetes is a huge and growing problem – health professionals claim that one in every nineteen people on the planet is plagued by the disease. Although it’s manageable, many individuals with diabetes equate the “management” with having a second job; glucose levels change frequently and round-the-clock monitoring is crucial. In the latest effort to integrate technology with healthcare and monitoring, Google has teamed up with Novartis, a multi-national pharmaceutical company, to develop smart contact lenses that monitor blood-sugar levels. The technology has the potential to address other ocular conditions, and will be designed to also help those who suffer from farsightedness.
How it Works
By sandwiching a low-power microchip and an almost invisible, hair-thin electronic circuit between two layers of soft lens material, the lens can measure blood sugar levels directly from the tear fluid on the surface of the eyeball. The system then can send this information to a mobile device so the individual is continually informed about their blood sugar levels. According to Google, the lenses are “so small they look like bits of glitter” and the electronic circuit is thinner than human hair.
Originally funded by the National Science Foundation, the product can improve the quality of life for those suffering from diabetes. Although some diabetes patients wear glucose monitors under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their fingers and test their blood throughout the day. It’s painful, disruptive, expensive, and some patients don’t monitor their blood as often as they should. Google’s “smart” contact lens can change this reality: a reality millions of diabetes’ patients face every day.
In addition to helping diabetics manage their disease, the smart lens has the potential to provide vision correction to those suffering from presbyopia – a condition in which the lens of the eye loses its ability to focus, making it difficult to see objects up close. The condition, typically associated with aging, affects more than half of adults over the age of thirty. By using the technology to assess the vision of those suffering from farsightedness and autofocusing the lens on whatever they’re looking at, similar to the way an automatic camera lens focuses when taking a picture, patients could avoid the need for glasses when reading or looking at other nearby objects.
Although Novartis and Google are currently focused on diabetes and vision correction, conscious health monitoring through tears holds other possibilities as well. In 2012, scientists at the University of California Irvine were able to isolate a disease-fighting protein in human tears, which could help with diagnosing eye diseases and theoretically lead to the early detection of certain cancers. Since human eyes contain lipids, proteins, electrolytes and other molecules, Google’s smart lenses could eventually help doctors continually monitor patients to detect diseases early, especially if wirelessly connected to the cloud.
Google’s “smart lens” technology for diabetics is currently being reviewed by the FDA, and was originally developed by Google X, the research and development lab responsible for Google Glass, internet weather-balloons, and the company’s self-driving cars.