Google Testing Smart Contact Lenses for Diabetes Patients

The new lenses include innovative, miniaturized sensors to monitor blood sugar levels in human tears as a way to help diabetes patients keep their disease in check.

Google innovation

Google is experimenting with special contact lenses equipped with miniaturized sensors that can analyze the tears in the eyes of diabetes patients to determine when their blood sugar levels need to be adjusted.

The project, which could ultimately make the management of diabetes easier for millions of patients around the world, was unveiled Jan 17 in a post by project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz on the Google Official Blog. Otis and Parviz work with the company's Google[x] research branch.

"You've probably heard that diabetes is a huge and growing problem—affecting one in every 19 people on the planet," wrote Otis and Parviz. "But you may not be familiar with the daily struggle that many people with diabetes face as they try to keep their blood sugar levels under control. Uncontrolled blood sugar puts people at risk for a range of dangerous complications, some short term and others longer term, including damage to the eyes, kidneys and heart. A friend of ours told us she worries about her mom, who once passed out from low blood sugar and drove her car off the road."

Managing diabetes for patients can mean wearing glucose monitors and constantly pricking their skin and testing their blood for sugar levels. To change that, alternative methods are always being evaluated and tested.

"Over the years, many scientists have investigated various body fluids—such as tears—in the hopes of finding an easier way for people to track their glucose levels," wrote Otis and Parviz. "But as you can imagine, tears are hard to collect and study. At Google[x], we wondered if miniaturized electronics—think: chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair—might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy."

The experimental lenses, which look like typical curved, round lenses, also feature copper-colored "grid" lines that are reminiscent of the rear window heater lines on a modern automobile. The sensors embedded in the grid lines measure glucose levels and analyze the wearer's tears using a tiny wireless chip and a miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material, according to the post.

So far, the team is testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. "We're also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we're exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds," they wrote.

The study is still in its early phases but multiple clinical research studies have already been completed that are helping refine the lens prototypes, wrote Otis and Parviz. "We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease."

For diabetes patients, they wrote, having the disease is very labor-intensive and is like having a part-time job. "Glucose levels change frequently with normal activity like exercising or eating or even sweating. Sudden spikes or precipitous drops are dangerous and not uncommon, requiring round-the-clock monitoring. Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day. It's disruptive, and it's painful. And, as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should."

Otis and Parviz said they are in discussions about their experiments with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "but there's still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use."

The project leaders are now seeking business partners to help them invest and successfully bring the experiments to the marketplace in the future, Otis and Parviz wrote. "These partners will use our technology for a smart contact lens and develop apps that would make the measurements available to the wearer and their doctor," the post stated. "We've always said that we'd seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation is declaring that the world is 'losing the battle' against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot."

In September 2013, Google launched a new health care company, called Calico, with a goal of finding ways to improve the health and extend the lives of human beings. The startup is focusing on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases, according to Google.

Calico wasn't the first health care-related initiative undertaken by Google. Back in 2008, Google launched its Google Health initiative, which aimed to help patients access their personal health records no matter where they were, from any computing device, through a secure portal hosted by Google and its partners, according to earlier eWEEK reports. Google Health shut down in January 2013.