Millions of people around the world have diabetes. If they want to keep the disease under control, they must prick their finger and test their blood glucose, or else wear an embedded glucose monitor with an electrode that slips under the skin. Neither of those methods are very convenient, which could lead people to monitor their glucose levels less often than they should—but a couple of researchers at Google think they might have a solution.
“Over the years, many scientists have investigated various body fluids—such as tears—in the hopes of finding an easier way for people to track their glucose levels,” Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, co-founders of this new Google project, wrote in a January 16 posting on Google’s official blog. But tears are difficult to collect and analyze. “At Google[x], we wondered if miniaturized electronics—think: chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair—might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy.”
Otis and Parviz are hard at work on a “smart” contact lens that will use an embedded chip and sensor to monitor the glucose level in tears. Current prototypes can “generate a reading once per second,” they claim. “We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.” Early discussions with the FDA are apparently underway, but this isn’t a technology likely to hit the market for years—even if Google finds an experienced partner to help manufacture the units.
“We’ve always said that we’d seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange,” the pair concluded, “and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation (PDF) is declaring that the world is ‘losing the battle’ against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot.”
Google isn’t the only tech company experimenting with ingestible, wearable, or embeddable health monitors. Oracle and other firms are exploring FDA-approved ingestible sensors that can be slipped inside a pharmaceutical; swallow the pill, and the hardware begins communicating with another sensor buried under the skin. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a plethora of companies offered up wristbands and other wearable devices that record biometrics. If Google produces its glucose-monitoring contact lenses, it won’t be alone in the health-monitoring game—but its contribution could prove one of the most useful.