Google submitted a patent to the US Patent & Trademark Office in 2014 that described a digital, multi-sensor contact lens that can also detect blinking, with benefits like turning the page of an e-book with a “blink of an eye”. Later, more details about the idea emerged, revealing a much more transformative use for the contact lens – measuring blood glucose from tears.

holding digital contact lens

How will the digital contact lens help diabetes patients?

Sensors are embedded between two soft layers of lens material and a pinhole in the lens allows tear fluid to seep into the sensor and be used to measure blood sugar levels. A wireless antenna, thinner than a human hair, will act as a controller to communicate information to the wireless device. Data will then be sent to an external device. Google engineers even considered adding LED lights that could warn the wearer by lighting up when the glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds, but abandoned the idea as the arsenic content of LED could prove dangerous.

The contact lens analyzes blood glucose level every second and transmits the data to an associated app. Detailed readings are available at a tap on your phone. When blood sugar crosses certain thresholds, the app notifies you instantly to act, or to contact a physician if the situation is serious.

Keeping blood sugar levels optimal all day, avoiding spikes or lulls during sleep – these everyday problems wouldn’t depend on pure luck anymore. You could also forget about pricking your finger several times each day. As one of the most powerful ways technology will change diabetes management, it sounds like utopia.

But when and how will diabetes patients be able to get their hands on this technology?

How is development progressing?

Developing the digital contact lens was first assigned to GoogleX, the “moonshot” lab of the company. But today it seems Verily, Alphabet’s healthcare spin-off is working on it. The company is reportedly discussing the technology with the FDA to make sure it will meet their recommendations. To develop it for use in healthcare, they also partnered with Alcon, the pharma company Novartis’ eye care division. By having a pharma partner with experience in eye products, entering the market could be faster, and they might also tackle regulatory issues more easily.

Novartis wants to provide a way for diabetic patients to keep on top of their glucose levels by feeding the data back to a smartphone or tablet. Google’s original vision is also still on the table – helping restore the eye’s natural focus on near objects, restoring clear vision to those who are farsighted (presbyopia).

“Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help improve the quality of life for millions of people” Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

The prototypes being tested can generate a glucose reading once per second, and are used to help farsighted people as well.

Though Google is the first to tackle diabetes with a digital contact lens, they aren’t the first to start developing one as a vision aid. US researchers used graphene in a lens to detect the entire infrared spectrum with visible and ultraviolet light – enhancing human vision by increasing the number of frequencies we can detect. Chinese researchers have successfully developed an invisible electrical circuit inside a polymer used for making contact lenses. A Swiss startup Sensimed has been given the green light by the FDA for its smart contact lens that aims to tackle glaucoma, a common cause for blindness. It uses a soft silicone contact lens that’s embedded with a microsensor which can be worn for 24 hours, even during sleep. But still Verily has the biggest potentials in reaching the critical mass with such a product.

Among all of these companies, Verily has the best shot to release a widely available product – the technology is set to be released for general usage around 2019, but trials are expected to start later this year. But to launch successfully, they must learn from the failure of another Google moonshot.

Learning lessons from Google Glass

I’m sure Verily will choose a marketing strategy other than the one Google used with the Google Glass, their failed augmented reality device. The product was invitation-only and was only available for a few days in the US. They also gave the impression that it was a final product while, in reality, it was only a device in beta phase. If you want to make a widely used and tested product, you need a significant amount of people who are willing to give valuable feedback. What’s more, controlling the hype over such an important product is crucial. Google Glass seemed to offer more than what it could really deliver. Its developers reportedly considered it a beta product, but the media frenzy led the public to expect a final, polished and usable one. In medicine and healthcare, such hype could cause even more damage and even physical harm.

The digital contact lens should be developed and tested with the constant help and feedback from diabetic patients and their caregivers. Based on people’s response to the first news about the contact lens, thousands would love to share their thoughts on this. Verily must take advantage of this opportunity to avoid the fate of Google Glass.

google glass with frame

Will regulations slow innovation down?

Insulin Nation reported that the diabetes community feels the FDA is too slow to approve new diabetes products, especially when compared with its European counterpart, the European Medicines Agency. A 2015 study found that pioneer, first-generation medical devices in a particular category took 7.2 months longer to gain FDA approval than the first follow-on device, while the same difference regarding drug approvals was 10 days. Also, innovative medical devices take significantly longer to gain approval from the FDA than do first-in-class drugs, according to a new study from Harvard University. This can seriously hurt breakthrough innovators and unnecessarily prolong patients’ suffering.

If the FDA and other regulatory agencies can act fast enough and facilitate the tests of the final product, this invention could really change the way patients manage diabetes.

The biggest ethical issue to tackle is related to augmenting human capabilities. If such a contact lens gives better or even perfect eyesight, or drastically eases life for patients with diabetes, regulators must make sure everyone has a fair shot at acquiring the technology. People must not be able to purchase biological advantages over their peers just because they can afford it and others cannot. Before the technology is allowed to disrupt the market, it must be made affordable.

Who could push companies and regulatory agencies to make it available soon for an affordable price?

Insurance companies are a powerful ally for patients in this. By decreasing the dangers and thus the costs of managing diabetes, this technology will have a huge impact on how they cover patients with the disease. Insurance companies will certainly jump on the bandwagon and offer better solutions for those who are ready to measure constant blood glucose levels.

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Another interested party might be app developers and other medical device, especially insulin pump makers. Combining the digital contact lens with diabetes apps and big data projects such as Databetes could create entirely new monitoring services, while networking it with insulin pumps would lead to a self-correcting, artificial pancreas.

While Samsung also has a patent for a digital contact lens with built-in camera, Google’s idea seems to be dedicated to the medical use of it. Novartis’ CEO promised that human trials with the digital contact lens would start in 2016. If you or someone close to you has diabetes, keep an eye on the project, as they might open it up for beta testers. I will also definitely update you about its progress.

Digital contact lenses can be one of the medical technologies that will soon make diabetes an easily manageable condition.