Google has unveiled a contact lens that monitors glucose levels in tears, a potential reprieve for millions of diabetics who have to jab their fingers to draw their own blood as many as 10 times a day.
The prototype, which Google says will take at least five years to reach consumers, is one of several medical devices being designed by companies to make glucose monitoring for diabetic patients more convenient and less invasive than traditional finger pricks.
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The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car, Google's web-surfing eyeglasses and Project Loon, a network of large balloons designed to beam the Internet to unwired places.
But research on the contact lenses began several years earlier at the University of Washington, where scientists worked under National Science Foundation funding. Until Thursday, when Google shared information about the project with The Associated Press, the work had been kept under wraps.
"You can take it to a certain level in an academic setting, but at Google we were given the latitude to invest in this project," Google X project lead Brian Otis said. "The beautiful thing is we're leveraging all of the innovation in the semiconductor industry that was aimed at making cellphones smaller and more powerful."
Other non-needle systems in the works
American Diabetes Association board chair Dwight Holing said he's gratified that creative scientists are searching for solutions for people with diabetes but warned that the device must provide accurate and timely information.
'The beautiful thing is we're leveraging all of the innovation in the semiconductor industry that was aimed at making cellphones smaller and more powerful' - Brian Otis, Google X project lead
"People with diabetes base very important health care decisions on the data we get from our monitors," he said.
Other non-needle glucose monitoring systems are also in the works, including a similar contact lens by Netherlands-based NovioSense, a minuscule, flexible spring that is tucked under an eyelid. Israel-based OrSense has already tested a thumb cuff, and there have been early designs for tattoos and saliva sensors.
A wristwatch monitor was approved by the FDA in 2001, but patients said the low level electric currents pulling fluid from their skin was painful, and it was buggy.
"There are a lot of people who have big promises," said Dr. Christopher Wilson, CEO of NovioSense. "It's just a question of who gets to market with something that really works first."
Palo Alto Medical Foundation endocrinologist Dr. Larry Levin said it was remarkable and important that a tech firm like Google is getting into the medical field and that he'd like to be able to offer his patients a pain-free alternative from either pricking their fingers or living with a thick needle embedded in their stomach for constant monitoring.
$16 B market
"Google, they're innovative, they are up on new technologies, and also we have to be honest here, the driving force is money," he said.
Worldwide, the glucose-monitoring devices market is expected to be more than $16 billion by the end of this year, according to analysts at Renub Research.
The Google team built the wireless chips in clean rooms and used advanced engineering to get integrated circuits and a glucose sensor into such a small space.
Researchers also had to build in a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device enough to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second. The embedded electronics in the lens don't obscure vision because they lie outside the eye's pupil and iris.
Google is now looking for partners with experience bringing similar products to market. Google officials declined to say how many people worked on the project or how much the firm has invested in it.
'This is a moonshot'
Dr. David Klonoff, medical director of the diabetes research institute at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in San Mateo, worked with Google to see whether glucose is present in tears and whether the amount of glucose is proportional to the amount of glucose in blood. He's still analyzing but optimistic about his findings and warns there are many potential pitfalls.
"Already this has some breakthrough technologies, but this is a moonshot, there are so many challenges," he said.
One is figuring out how to correlate glucose levels in tears as compared with blood. And what happens on windy days, while chopping onions or during very sad movies? As with any medical device, it would need to be tested and proved accurate, safe, and at least as good as other types of glucose sensors available now to win FDA approval.
Karen Rose Tank, who left her career as an economist to be a health and wellness coach after her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis 18 years ago, also is encouraged that new glucose monitoring methods may be on the horizon.
"It's really exciting that some of the big tech companies are getting into this market," she said. "They bring so much ingenuity; they're able to look outside the box."