Google Contact Lenses Aim to Revolutionize Diabetes Care
A new way of measuring blood glucose levels from tears is currently in development from Google, coming in a form of digital contact lenses that can potentially disrupt the market and provide patients with significant benefits.
Back in 2014, Google was the first who filed the patent to the to the US Patent & Trademark Office for a revolutionary digital, multi-sensor contact lens that had the ability to send signals to nearby devices every time the users blinked. As a practical application, this device could, for example, enable the user to flip the pages of their ebook just by blinking a predetermined pattern. As time went on, new ideas revolving this device appeared, suggesting that these Google contact lenses could be used to revolutionize diabetes care by having the onboard hardware to measuring blood glucose from tears.
The modern push for continuous blood glucose level monitoring is starting to takes longer hold with each passing month. Several medical companies have presented their solutions for implantable sensors packages that can be placed below the skin and operate independently for months without the need for recharging their batteries. These contact lenses aim to achieve similar results of constant monitoring, but without the need of invasive procedures.
Constant monitoring enables diabetes patients to avoid spikes or lulls (usually during sleep) of their blood sugar levels, finally making their daily lives not revolve around schedules for health monitoring and pricing their fingers several times each day. By having access to a device that constantly monitors their blood levels, the entire industry of diabetes management could enter into a revolution that can transform the quality of life of millions of people.
As of 2015, approximately 8.3% of the adult population of the entire Earth (around 415 million people) is diabetic. It is estimated that economic cost of diabetes management has passed $600 billion in modern healthcare spending during 2014 alone. This medical condition is responsible for between 1.5 and 5 million deaths each year.
What can diabetes patients expect from Google contact lenses?
To achieve its intended functionality, Google engineers designed a plan in which they would encase the needed sensors between two soft layers of lens material. Access to the tear fluid would be achieved via a small pinhole in the lens barrier, enabling sensors to touch the tears and measure blood sugar levels. The hardware array also consists of the extremely small wireless antenna which is thinner than a human hair, which would be responsible for sending collected data into a nearby space where it could be picked up by users external wireless device (such as a smartphone or smart watch).
Google initially planned to make entire contact lenses detection hardware standalone by not needing users to collect data via an external device, but this plan was abandoned. Their plan involved placing a LED lights inside the contact lenses that would light up when blood glucose levels passed a certain threshold, but that would involve placing a dangerous arsenic content very close user’s eyes. Because of this, their plan was discarded.
Currently-planned version of the Google contact lenses functions as a blood glucose monitoring device by reading level of glucose in tears every second. The collected medical data is transmitted to the associated medical app on your smartphone, where you can access detailed readings and other secondary services that app provider has included (scheduling for sugar intake for examples). The smartphone app also has the functionality to notify users automatically when blood sugar levels cross certain thresholds and even contact a physician if the readings are serious.
What’s the current status of Google contact lenses development?
The initial development of this new digital contact lens technology was assigned to the “moonshot” lab called GoogleX, but currently, all the work on this device has been switched to Verily, Alphabet’s healthcare spin-off company. According to the recent news, Verily is currently discussing this technology and it it’s development status with the FDA in an effort to make sure it will meet all their recommendations. To ensure faster and more quality development roadmap, Verily has entered into a partnership with Acon, an eye care division of pharma Novartis. This partnership gives Google access to the vast experience of developing eye products, a chance to enter the market faster, and of course knowledge of how to best navigate legal and regulatory space.
The goal of Novartis has always been to provide diabetic patients with hardware and services for keeping track of their glucose levels using devices such as tablets and smartphones. Google aims to take advantage from this field. Of course, the primary use case of this lenses will be to restore eye’s natural focus when viewing close objects and restoring vision to people who have trouble distinguishing objects at a distance.
The idea of placing sensors and another type of technology inside contact lenses is not a new one. Before Google started devising their plans, many other companies entered this field with their efforts. One of the first examples of this came from US researchers who utilized graphene to enable the wearer of the lenses to perceive infrared and ultraviolet spectrum of light. This enhancement essentially enables wearers to perceive wider frequency of light. On the other side of the world in China, researchers managed to develop invisible electrical circuits made inside the polymer structure that is currently used for the production of contact lenses. FDA has given approval to Swiss startup company Sensimed to use technology-augmented contact lenses for fighting common blindness cause – glaucoma. They do that by using microsensor-equipped silicone contact lens that has the battery capacity of 24 hours.
Even though the efforts of the several companies around the world revolve around augmenting contact lenses with new technology, Verily gives Google the best chance to push their new product on the market. Verily is widely believed to have the best shot of pushing a diabetes management contact lens product on the market by 2019. To achieve these ambitious goals, the early tests of this technology are slated to be run during 2017.
One important aspect of the future development of Verily’s digital contact lenses is that they are not the only player in this space in regard to patent acquisition. Samsung has showcased their early efforts in researching this field by securing a patent for a digital contact lens with the built-in camera. Thankfully, Google is currently only interested in medical applications of their digital contact lens technology.
Can Verily avoid the fate of Google Glass’s failed marketing?
Google has some experience in pushing innovative hardware on the market. Sadly their most prominent research effort in the form of Google Glass product become a failed experiment in marketing.
Google Glasses is an innovative product created before the advent of modern AR and VR, but its road to public consumption was a hard one. It was offered via invitation-only access, was available only for a few days in the US, and its marketing showcased capabilities that were not present in the final product. The reality was that the product that was released never exited its beta phase, and the hype that surrounded the entire project only fueled the disappointment from users who managed to try it (or buy it for a very high price). One of the reasons for the hype came from the media frenzy which hoped that Google Glass will release to the public in its final state, which was never the case.
To achieve success with their digital contact lens initiative Verily needs to very carefully approach its marketing and deployment. One of the key strategies has to be gathering help and feedback from diabetic patients and caregivers, which will enable Verily hardware and software engineers to polish their product to perfection. User’s responses represent one of the key ways the final product needs to developed, which was one of the key shortcomings of the Google Glass’ deployment.
Potential regulatory and ethical barriers
Organizations such as Insulin Nation have commented over the past few years that European Medicines Agency is much more reactive and faster with the adoption of new diabetes-management products than US-based FDA. According to the study performed in 2015, FDA required 7.2 months more than EMA to certify first-generation medical devices in a particular category than the device from the second generation. The same difference regarding drug approvals was only 10 days! It was also noted that FDA takes much more time for approval of innovative medical devices than first-in-class drugs. This regulatory roadblock can influence medical companies, reduce the pace of medical breakthroughs and without any doubt, unnecessarily prolong patients’ suffering.
Many medical companies are hoping that FDA and other medical regulatory agencies will go through a restructuring that will enable them to act faster, which would enable patients to access higher levels of care, including new measures and products for managing diabetes.
In addition to regulatory barriers, any technology that aims to “augment” human capabilities inevitable gets some resistance from the public, regulatory bodies, and even scientific communities. And in the event that some technology offer users the drastic increase in their quality of life or easier medical condition management, regulators then must be tasked to make sure that everyone has a fair shot of purchasing that technology or products. It should not be allowed that only wealthy customers can purchase the biological advantage over a people who cannot afford it. Because of this kind of approach, any new breakthroughs in medical technology are usually kept away from the public access until they become affordable.
What can be done for medical breakthroughs to help them reach public space faster?
Without any doubt, one of the surest ways that new medical sensors for constant monitoring of blood sugar levels will reach wide acceptance is with the help of insurance companies. These sensors will have a huge impact in how they offer their patient covering services. They will offer better solutions for those who have access to measure glucose levels in blood on a constant basis, which will fuel the adoption rate of these devices.
Adoption of Google contact lenses for measuring blood sugar levels and other similar constant monitoring sensors will be fueled by the efforts of app developers and medical device manufacturers, especially makers of insulin pumps. Wearers of digital contact lenses will gain a tremendous advantage by having access to modern diabetes apps and big data projects. Large medical companies will most likely create a wholly new medical monitoring services, enabling the seamless flow of data between insulin pumps, digital contact lenses, user-wearable devices, central servers, and primary care providers who are overseeing the health status of patients.
All this will lead modern researchers to one day create the holy grail of diabetes care – a self-managing artificial pancreas.
A word from Telehealther
New wearable devices, implantable sensors, and telemedicine enable patients to much better manage their health and remain in touch with their body. The arrival of new mHealth devices is a focus of attention of the entire medicine community, and here on Telehealther, you can get informed about all the newest developments from this field.
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