Google says it is developing a contact lens to measure glucose. Will it work? The name “Google” brings to mind futuristic tech advancements that can revolutionise life as we know it. After all, the company dominates search engine technology and cute cat videos, is on track to develop the first commercially sold self-driving car, and seemingly has more money to spend than many industrialised nations. Having mastered the Internet, the company is turning its attention to the one sector of our economy with the most growth potential health care.
Google has announced the development of contact lenses that can measure glucose levels! The tech giant has put an end to fingerpricks forever! Let the ticker-tape parade begin!
Wait, no. Let’s take a deep breath.
Google has teamed up with researchers at the University of Washington to create a contact lens that can measure blood glucose levels in a person’s tears and display the reading on their mobile phone. If this smart contact lens project is successful, people with diabetes may be able to stop drawing blood to measure their sugar levels.
Diabetes affects nearly 400m people worldwide. If left untreated, it can result in blindness, cardiovascular disease, nerve damage and, in severe cases, amputation of toes or feet. People with the disease must keep regular tabs on the amount of glucose in their blood – for many this often means doing daily blood tests themselves. A 2011 report projected that the global blood glucose test strips and meters market will reach US$21.5 billion by 2017.
Last year, Google made a few diabetes-related headlines when it announced it was throwing a few million dollars at a company working to develop oral insulin and now its secretive “Google X” division has announced it has developed a contact lens that can measure glucose. When Google talks about diabetes, people listen.
The Google X blog post announcement sounds promising, describing “a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material.” The developers say it can measure a reading per second, and may even come with built-in early warning devices to warn a wearer of fluctuations in BG levels. All good stuff !
According to Google, the glucose-sensing contact lens will function similar to an electronic ID card used to gain access to a building. Like the card, the lens doesn’t contain its own power supply. Instead the circular antenna in the contact lens picks up the radio waves from a mobile to provide it with enough power to measure the glucose. The technology in Google’s glucose lenses goes well beyond electronics – it contains enzymes and electrodes built into the materials used to make regular contact lenses. This combines advances made in biochemistry, electronics and material sciences during the past decades.
Google is not the first on the block to try for a bloodless way, either. Cnoga is focusing on using skin pigment to measure glucose and has several non-blood-based devices out on international markets, while Integrity Applications is developing ways to measure it with an ear clip, just to name a few. Google isn’t even the first to try to devise a way to measure glucose with tears. In 2011, Live Science reported that separate teams of researchers at the University of Michigan and Arizona State University are working on ways to measure glucose with the eye. In fact, one researcher mentioned that the idea goes as far back as 1937. Such a method comes with multiple difficulties, as glucose levels are 30 to 50 times less concentrated in tears than in blood, and levels fluctuate depending on the eye’s stress level.
Google has deep pockets and a reputation for getting things done. The company’s entry into alternative glucose monitoring ups the ante for everyone in the field to get something done, done soon, and done well. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the company wanted to use “the latest technology in ‘miniaturization’ of electronics” in order to improve people’s “quality of life”.