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Google's Latest Moon Shot Is a Smart Contact Lens for Diabetes Patients

Smart contacts could allow diabetics to check glucose without pricking their fingers.

Google has shrunk down a chip and sensor system so small it can be embedded in a contact lens.

Instead of a circuit board, the tiny pieces are connected to a circular gold foil antenna mounted on a flexible plastic-like material that comfortably sits on a person’s eye, outside of their own sight.

Why? To help people with diabetes.

Google’s smart contact lens project is designed to measure the glucose content of the wearer’s tears, once every second. Theoretically, it could be a noninvasive way for diabetics to keep their blood sugar levels in check, rather than pricking their skin to sample their blood multiple times per day, or wearing a continuous monitoring device that’s stabbed into their side to tap into subcutaneous tissue.

If the smart contact lens ever makes it to market, it could be welcome news for the more than 380 million people worldwide with diabetes — a number that could reach beyond 590 million by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

The smart contact lens was designed by a team of chip designers, software engineers, electrical chemists and polymer chemists from Google X, the company’s secretive in-house research division that also designs other so-called “moon shot” projects like self-driving cars and Internet-connected eyewear. It holds the promise that maybe someday diabetes patients will be able to get ongoing measurements without ever breaking their skin.

But Google says it has no intention of producing and selling the medical device it has built. Rather, it wants to publicize the work it has done so far in the hope of finding partners among companies that develop medical devices and vision products.

Google has itself brought the smart lenses to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and early independent clinical studies have begun. Word of the project leaked last week after project lead Brian Otis and others met with the FDA in December, with Bloomberg surmising that the meeting might relate to Google Glass.

Connecting contact lenses and computers worn on the face is the obvious leap, but it’s one that Google is pointedly not making — at least not now.

The smart contact lens project is “completely separate” from Google Glass, Otis told Re/code this week, though he noted that Glass project founder Babak Parviz also advises the contact lens project.

Both Otis and Parviz were formerly professors at University of Washington, where they had started work together on building a tiny glucose meter that could be worn on the eye — though they were using PET plastic, like that used to make water bottles, so early prototypes couldn’t actually be worn. Google X allowed them to pour two years of work into revamping the project. They were able to actually mold and fabricate the lenses on campus, and have developed tools to work on such a small scale.

“My passion is trying to shrink down systems to make them smaller and smaller,” Otis said. “Doing it for a project that could have such an impact is really a dream come true.”

The company is looking for partners to move forward with the next steps. Otis said he wasn’t sure what the precise nature of that relationship would be, but it might be a technology licensing arrangement. Google does know that it doesn’t want to manufacture and sell the product.

“Our philosophy is, you can’t design a medical device in a vacuum,” Otis said.

Much work lies ahead. Even overlooking the fact that this is eons away from FDA approval, it’s actually not even clear that tear fluid from eyes would be a reliable indicator of glucose levels in the bloodstream.

It has historically been hard to test tear fluid because it cannot be easily collected in large volumes, and any process that helps generate it and extract it from the eye — like chopping onions or plucking nose hairs — disrupts the environment and might change its content.

Dr. David Klonoff, medical director at the Diabetes Research Institute at Mills-Peninsula Health Services, has worked with Google on a clinical study to evaluate that ability to detect glucose in tears, without using the contacts. His group is still analyzing the results and hasn’t reported conclusions.

“But I would say I’ve seen the data and I’m optimistic,” he said.

Google isn’t alone in exploring different “bloodless” approaches to glucose monitoring.

Grove Instruments and others are looking at what’s known as near-infrared spectroscopy. Essentially, these tools shine infrared light on the earlobe and infer the level of glucose in the blood by the amount of light that comes through on the other side.

Other researchers have investigated the possibility of measuring glucose from saliva or exhaled breath.

None of these techniques have earned FDA approval so far, but if any ultimately prove effective and safe, it could mean not only less pain for patients — but longer and healthier lives.

Given the pain, blood, calloused fingers and overall inconvenience of today’s options, many patients simply don’t check their blood sugar enough — and thus don’t properly calibrate their lifestyle and medication.

If new devices like Google’s work, “people could take as many glucose readings as they want per day without finger sticks,” said Kelly Close, who has lived with diabetes for 27 years and edits diaTribe, a closely followed newsletter about diabetes products and research. “They could avoid the highs and lows, and ultimately the long-term complications of the disease like heart attacks, strokes, blindness and kidney failure.”

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