Novartis Looks to 'Transform Eye Care' With Google's Smart Lenses

The work by the drug company will build on Google's experimental contact lenses that use sensors to help monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients.

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Drug maker Novartis has licensed Google's "smart lens" technologies with the idea of building on Google's past work in developing special contact lenses with built-in sensors to someday help diabetes patients better monitor their glucose levels.

The licensing deal was unveiled July 15 by Novartis' Alcon eye care division and will allow the company to use Google's smart lens technology for all ocular medical uses. The deal was made with Google's Google[x] division, the research branch of the company, according to Novartis. The agreement gives Alcon "the opportunity to develop and commercialize Google's 'smart lens' technology with the potential to transform eye care," the company stated.

The Novartis deal comes just six months after Google announced in January that it has been 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.

"Google's key advances in the miniaturization of electronics complement Novartis's deep pharmaceuticals and medical device expertise," Novartis said in the statement. "Novartis aims to enhance the ways in which diseases are mapped within the body and ultimately prevented."

Joseph Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis, said in a statement, "We are looking forward to working with Google to bring together their advanced technology and our extensive knowledge of biology to meet unmet medical needs. This is a key step for us to go beyond the confines of traditional disease management, starting with the eye."

Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, said in a statement, "Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help improve the quality of life for millions of people. We are very excited to work with Novartis to make this dream come true."

Google declined a request from eWEEK for further comment on the deal. The financial terms of the agreement have not been announced.

The licensing deal means that Google[x] and Alcon "will collaborate to develop a 'smart lens' that has the potential to address ocular conditions," according to Novartis. "The smart lens technology involves non-invasive sensors, microchips and other miniaturized electronics which are embedded within contact lenses."

Novartis is most interested in two potential uses for the technology, including their promise in eventually helping diabetic patients manage their disease and for people living with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses, the company states. "The 'smart lens' has the potential to provide accommodative vision correction to help restore the eye's natural autofocus on near objects in the form of an accommodative contact lens or intraocular lens as part of the refractive cataract treatment," according to Novartis.

"The agreement marries Google's expertise in miniaturized electronics, low power chip design and micro-fabrication with Alcon's expertise in physiology and visual performance of the eye, clinical development and evaluation, as well as commercialization of contact and intraocular lenses," Novartis said in its statement. "Through the collaboration, Alcon seeks to accelerate product innovation based on Google's 'smart lens' technology."

The experimental Google lenses include innovative, miniaturized sensors that can monitor blood sugar levels in human tears as a way to help diabetes patients keep their disease in check. 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. The Google lens project began looking at how tears could be used to provide the needed monitoring information, and that eventually led to the contact lens work.

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, early tests with prototypes generated one reading per second. The studies are still in their early phases.

Diabetes is a huge and growing problem—affecting one in every 19 people on the planet, according to Google. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels put people at risk for a range of dangerous complications, some short term and others longer term, including damage to the eyes, kidneys and heart.

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.