Google X has just unveiled a prototype of a smart contact lens designed to provide an easier way for patients with diabetes to monitor their glucose levels.

Smart contact lens designed to help diabetics manage daily life

More and more leading information and communication technology players are now linking up with the medical sector to work on connected health projects. A popular development area for many current projects is the field of chronic illness. Now Google, which already made a notable debut in the medical research sector by founding Calico Ventures, with a laboratory aiming to increase the human lifespan, has just announced a new project whose purpose is to improve the daily lives of diabetes sufferers. With over 380 million people in the world suffering from diabetes this could prove to be good business.However, a series of technical and regulatory barriers still need to be overcome before the product can be mass-marketed in the coming years.

Permanent embedded tracking

The prototype revealed by Google on the company’s official blog is a contact lens containing a tiny wireless chip and antenna, together with a miniaturized glucose sensor, which are all embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material on the outer rim of the lens. The sensor is able to measure the glucose levels of a diabetic in real time by using his/her tear fluid and transmit the results to a hand-held device. As the chip, antenna and sensor are on the outer edge of the lens they do not obstruct the wearer’s view. The package can be recharged from incoming radio frequencywaves from the environment around the user. In order to make the system even more responsive, the developers are now exploring the idea of integrating tiny LED lights that would light up to alert the wearer whenever his/her glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds. The methods currently used by people suffering from chronic diabetes are quite painful – they have to prick their finger several times a day to take blood samples. This smart lens solution will be far more comfortable and is also very low-maintenance. The market that Google is now looking to enter represents over $16 billion per year in the United States.

New materials towards an even better solution?

Google’s lens project is not too dissimilar to other experiments currently underway, especially those being run by Microsoft and Sensimed, the latter designed to monitor glaucoma by measuring the build-up of pressure in the eye. However, all these lens solutions have the disadvantage that they contain rigid electronic componentswhich can make wearing them for any length of time quite uncomfortable. In addition, some types of diabetes sufferers are advised not to wear contact lenses, as the illness may make the cornea more sensitive. Meanwhile, to counter this type of problem, the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology laboratory in South Korea has been working to develop an innovative material made of transparent, flexible nanomaterials. This project, which is being financed by Samsung, might provide a realistic alternative in the search for ways to make life easier for diabetics.

By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst