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.

Google's tiny chip looks like a piece of glitter.

It’s not glitter. It’s a chip.

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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4 comments
simonsb161
simonsb161

Echo Therapeutics has a much more practical glucose monitor. It's a transdermal sensor that just attaches to your skin and doesn't use a needle like the current Dexcom or Medtronic systems. You don't have to put anything in your eyes, either. After 10 years of development Echo is getting their glucose sensor approved in Europe in April, and in the U.S. later this year.

fdebong
fdebong

Yes, Microsoft was at it already. Yes, it's been looked into before. But as one of the millions of people living with diabetes, I am super thrilled to see this becoming a Google X project! I don't think it's such a moonshot away, but just a bit of time.


I'd love to give you some insight (pun intended) into life with diabetes and what's going on in this field. I've had type 1 diabetes for almost 30 years now and am an active entrepreneur in the field – will not add some blatant ad for what we do, don't worry.


Almost a century ago, insulin from animals was found to be useful in managing this disease which most often resulted in death to those who had it. Its mission: to allow glucose to enter the cells, to become energy. Our bodies either have trouble producing insulin, or the body has stopped reacting to it as it should. Insulin is now mainly produced artificially, by the way… Us who are insulin dependent, not all people with diabetes are, can stay alive by using this hormone. Before that invention, we dropped like flies.


Yet, insulin is a bit volatile – I think that is the right word? You see, if we shoot too much, we can fall unconscious due to not having enough sugar in our blood; if we shoot too little, our blood sugar increases and stays there. From a high blood glucose we may suffer complications later in life: wounds which do not heal, blindness, a severely increased risk of heart failure, potential nerve damage which can lead to all kinds of nasty stuff. This is where technology comes into play! Life with insulin treated diabetes is very much driven by data. We have to make decisions multiple times a day on how much of that wonderful, slightly scary, hormone we use. To know where we are, we test our blood glucose. To know how much to inject, we do some math, to know how to react, we think about what we eat.


Thanks to technology and insulin, we are even able to live full, long and wonderful lives. We are astronauts, pilots, police officers, elite athletes, entrepreneurs, cleaners, midwives, doctors, bus drivers and divers. Thanks to technology like blood glucose testing, which enables me to make informed decisions, I can manage my diabetes rather well. It's not easy, or fun. Yet it must be done because life is awesome. For this, I am so grateful towards all those amazing companies and people out there making it better and better, year by year.


I believe, that we are on the verge of making diabetes technology way more useful by integrating it. I believe that the increased focus on usability, which this device represents, will change the lives for millions of people, it is not a question of "can". Devices like this are, technologically, able to talk to our insulin pumps, which many of us use to inject our insulin. Soon they will be connected in so called closed loops – which are somewhat smart and able to manage our blood glucose for us. I believe, that we will one day be cured, but until that day, technology is what keeps us alive and able to live full and long lives. We are dependent on it.


One of the most interesting trends, I believe, is the focus on psychology in the field of diabetes technology. As you may have come to understand, we are often burdened by these decisions we make day in and day out – many of us refer to it as living with a "monster". Often we are driven by fear of complications, and often we simply feel lucky when we have achieved a good value in one of our multiple daily blood glucose tests. This needs to change, so that the force which drives us and how we feel about our therapy becomes a positive one.


I hope this "little" note explains a few things to people who are looking to learn a bit more about this subject and life with diabetes. If you wish to learn more feel free to reach out, or check out the blogs of people with diabetes. Maybe a good starting point would be the blog of my friend Scott: http://scottsdiabetes.com/ There are many amazing people telling their stories out there and Scott lists many of the other blogs on his site.


Have an amazing day, and thank you G, you now have an even bigger fan.

TheNickmeister
TheNickmeister

@fdebong  Well you're about to become very disillusioned my friend. Because you're kidding yourself if you think Google will do the responsible thing here and bring an affordable, consumer-level device like this to market. 


Instead, they will wind up "partnering" with BigPharma and this little device will be reworked and tweaked to require lots of expensive, renewable parts and consumables that users will have to replace on a regular basis. The devices will require a prescription of course so we can make sure the doctors get their cut. And in the end, we have a nice monitoring system that ensures BILLIONS of dollars flow into the pockets of the pharmaceutical giants. Good for them, bad for us.


Wish it weren't so friend...but that's the way it is.

fdebong
fdebong

Oh yeah, you can find me as @fdebong  if you wish to reach out.

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