Few technological developments for diabetes are as exciting as Google’s smart contact lens. Able to read blood glucose levels through the tears, it could change the way we think about blood sugar monitoring.

Google announced the smart contact lens about 18 months ago, in January of 2014. Brian Otis, a director at Google and research associate professor at the University of Washingto, explained the motivation:

“We figure that if it can solve a huge problem, it’s probably worth doing. Diabetes is one example.” Otis feels that the device represents “a new category of wearable devices that are comfortable, inexpensive, and empowering.”

The original blog post announcement also emphasised the great need for such a product: “We’ve always said that we’d seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) is declaring that the world is ‘losing the battle’ against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot.”

So far, so exciting. Next question: when would it be available?

“[We] would hope to be able to commercialise it within about five years,” said Joe Jimenez, chief executive of Novartis, who are collaborating on the lens’s design.

This was a hopeful estimate, but it could be even sooner than that. At least, that’s what all the signs suggest. Google has been awarded 44 patents, with another 53 applied for, and packaging designs are already floating around the internet. Things don’t sound preliminary.

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What does Google’s smart contact lens do?

Simply put, Google’s smart contact lens is a new way to measure blood glucose levels. You put it in your eye – like most contact lenses – and your tears drip through into a tiny sensor. The sensor measures your blood glucose levels and sends the data back to a wireless device – a phone, perhaps.

There are obvious benefits to the smart contact lens, chief among them that it eliminates the need for traditional blood testing. Instead of uncomfortable finger pricking and its side effects, the contact lens is capable of reading your blood sugars once a second.

There are more exciting innovations planned for the future. Google intends to equip the lens with LED lights that change colour when blood glucose levels fall below or above certain thresholds. In short, the device has the potential to revolutionise blood sugar testing, making what was once arduous, effortless.

A device for everyone

Not that the device is intended only for people with diabetes. Google sees the project as having a universal application:

“This is not intended to be for the most severe cases [only]. This is intended to be for all of us as a pro-active way of improving our lifestyles.”

“Instead of waiting until a person has full-fledged [type 2] diabetes, we could make a huge difference in peoples’ lives and lower the costs of treating them.”

So not only does the contact lens have potential for the millions of people with diabetes; it could also ease the financial burden of healthcare systems worldwide by preventing its development in the first place.

But with this aim comes an increased need to make the device comfortable. If it was designed purely for people with the most out-of-control blood glucose levels, a small level of discomfort might be expected, and certainly worth it for the benefits. But when you’re hoping that people at risk of diabetes will use it and stop the disease from developing further, you have to make it perfectly comfortable to wear. Otherwise nobody will be interested.

What are the big design challenges facing Google?

It’s not the only challenge Google faces. The device is so innovative, its technology so brand new, that practical issues are inevitable. For instance: the smart lens contains an array of different items, including a sensor, power supply, and myriad passive components. All of them have to be tiny, and all of them have to be capable of being inserted into the lens’s thin film.

Then there are questions of data, and how best that data can be transmitted to the wireless device. There’s the platform: the device has to have wireless sensors that are on all the time. Safe to say, there’s plenty to think about.

Which is why it’s so surprising that the smart contact lens should be ready so soon. Exactly how soon is difficult to gauge, but if the project continues to develop at the same rate, it certainly won’t need the original five-year estimate. A revolution in diabetes management might be just round the corner.

Featured image copyright: Google.

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