If you’re diabetic, imagine this: You get up in the morning and instead of pulling out your glucose meter you open a contact lens case. Rather than pricking your finger yet again and squeezing out a drop of blood to wet the test strip, instead you power up your smart phone. Then you put in the contacts. You blink a few times and open an app on your phone.
There on the screen is a display showing your blood glucose level. The app gives you several options. You can view your reading in real time—it’s updated once every second. You can look at a graph showing you the past 24 hours. You can program an alarm to sound if the numbers start to drop too low or creep too high. If you choose to, you can tell it to automatically call 911 if your numbers fall into truly dangerous territory. You can even send your readings to your doctor with the touch of a finger.
And you’ll never have to prick that finger again. Because you’re not wearing contacts due to a vision problem. You’re wearing them because you’re diabetic. They’re the most high-tech, minimally invasive type of glucose monitor yet invented.
And they’re set to go into clinical trials this year.
This is light years ahead of the products on the market today
Gadgets that monitor your glucose levels in real time aren’t a new idea. They’ve been around for a while. You may know someone who has one or you may even use one yourself. They go by the unimaginative name of “continuous glucose monitoring systems,” and while they do offer some very real benefits for people trying to manage their diabetes, they leave a lot to be desired. The products currently on the market are complete self-contained “systems.” These consist of a wearable sensor, a transmitter, and a monitor.
The sensor embeds micro-needles in the skin, which then sample glucose levels in tissue fluid. The sensor attaches to a transmitter which relays glucose levels to the monitor. The transmitter is about the size of a matchbox or a package of gum. Transmitters have a life of six months to a year, and sensors must be changed and moved to a new location on your every couple of days. They can be irritating to the skin, and finding a comfortable placement can be tough. And because they do break the skin, there’s a small but real possibility of infection.
Although some systems do let you transmit the data to your smart phone too, you still need the proprietary monitor. It becomes one more piece of technology you have to carry around and keep track of. And if you’re going to swim or exercise, you may need to remove the sensor and transmitter. But in spite of having an invasive piece of tech stuck in your skin and a clunky piece of hardware to carry around, you still have to check your glucose levels with an old-fashioned monitor and test strips. 2-4 times per day, in fact.
Although they can cost more than a thousand dollars, continuous glucose monitors have to be recalibrated often to make sure they’re accurate. And their accuracy has to be checked against the readout from a conventional glucose monitor, sometimes several times per day. The creators of the so-called “smart lens” hope to overcome all these problems. They want to give us a non-invasive, accurate, unobtrusive way of measuring glucose levels in real time.
There have been whispers of this kind of technology in the past. As computer chips have become increasingly smaller, the possible applications have expanded and “wearable” tech is the hottest new technological field. It’s no surprise the Big Medicine and Big Pharma have seen an opportunity and jumped on it. But where other attempts at “wearables” with clinical applications haven’t fared too well, this one is well on its way to happening. In fact, the creators were confident enough to file a patent describing packaging for the product last year.
So why is this product likely to succeed where other projects have failed? Because it has the backing of two giants of the tech and pharmaceutical worlds: Novartis, and…Google.
Doctor Google will see you now
Google has been quietly edging its way into the medical world for a while now. It has an entire arm devoted to medical applications. And while I certainly wouldn’t like the idea of Google collecting and storing my medical data for its own use, there’s no hint of that being the end-game of this product. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
The basic design will be a soft contact lens made of two layers of material. A miniature computer chip and glucose monitor will be sandwiched between the two layers. Google says that these will be "the size of a piece of glitter." The glucose monitor will analyze glucose levels from the fluid of the wearer’s eye. The computer chip will then relay this information to an app on the user’s phone or computer.
Google is also looking at embedding tiny LED lights in the contacts. These would act like the alarms on conventional continuous monitoring systems. They would alert the wearer when their sugar is getting too high or too low. Unlike the alarms on conventional systems, the LED alarm would be unobtrusive and probably only visible to the wearer. The whole thing would be powered, Google says, by harnessing radio waves from the air. It sounds like science fiction. But it's looking more and more like it will soon be science fact.
Back in 2014 when Google announced the project, they estimated that the product would be on the market within five years. So far it looks like they’re on target. And though the project is still rather hush-hush, the smart lens was slated to go into clinical trials this year.
When they do hit the market, smart lenses could be a godsend for people with diabetes—Type 1 diabetes. While diet and lifestyle changes can be a very effective tool for Type 2 diabetics, Type 1 patients have no option but insulin. Being able to keep track of their glucose levels accurately and in real time could make the burden of this disease just a tiny bit lighter.