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Blood and Tears at DAC: Why Google Thinks Smart Contacts Are Ideal for Diabetes Monitoring

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Blood and Tears at DAC: Why Google Thinks Smart Contacts Are Ideal for Diabetes Monitoring

At this year’s Design Automation Conference (DAC) in San Francisco, Brian Otis, a Director at Google, talked about how hundreds of millions of people are at risk of diabetes – and how a smart contact lens that continuously monitors blood glucose levels and transmits the data to a smartphone might just be the ideal solution.

There is a good correlation between your glucose levels in tears and that in blood (although it’s a factor of magnitude lower), so a smart contact lens can measure glucose levels using a wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor. The devices are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material.

Google announced the smart lens project in January of 2014, at which time multiple clinical studies had been completed. A partnership was subsequently announced with Novartis’s Alcon eye-care division in July of 2014.

Otis said that the universe of people who are either bona fide pre-diabetic or at risk through genetic predisposition, through pregnancy, through lifestyle, is huge. “It’s hundreds of millions of people,” he said. “Our hypothesis is that if we are able to create more comfortable CGMs (continuous glucose monitors), this will significantly impact the diabetes management problem we’re facing.”

“If we look at the way people currently manage the diabetes, it is through essentially pricking your finger, taking a drop of blood and using a portable instrument the blood glucose. This is typically on the order of 4X a day,” Otis said. “That probably isn’t enough. The parameter changes so quickly, and you’re using that information to close the loop on, for example, drug delivery or insulin delivery.”

The diabetes technology community has created a group of continuous monitors that will can give continual access to that information, but it requires a device with a small needle that’s placed under the skin. “You can imagine that’s extremely valuable if your life depends on accurately tracking this data, but it is not a pleasant device to wear,” Otis said. “It’s not pleasant to prick your finger, it’s not pleasant to have a large device with a needle protruding from it taped onto your abdomen.”

There’s a large spectrum in types of diabetes. The most severe are Type I and Type II. Otis said that existing technology typically targets these top two categories. “The reason for that is not that the rest of the people are being ignored. It’s that the technology simply does not exist to give you a palatable way of measuring your blood glucose. If you’re life depends on having these four data points, you’re going to prick your finger. You don’t care. You’re going to do whatever you need to do. But, if instead, you think this information may help me reduce my chances of becoming pre-diabetic in ten years, you’re not going to do it. The burden is way too high,” he said. “We need to introduce much more convenient ways of gaining access to this data.”

The average cost per year of treating someone with pre-diabetes is about $500. The average cost per year of someone with actual Type II or Type 1 diabetes is on the order of $10,000 per year. “As the population of people with diabetes grows, then the cost of treating those people grows as well,” Otis said.

Otis said their mission was simple: “We want to bring glucose monitoring to over 100 million people. People who are out there that are at risk or have pre-diabetes. No one has solved this problem yet, but we really want to do this because it could improve people’s lives.”

A smart contact lens could solve the problem because it’s a wearable device that many millions of people already wear on a daily basis. “If there is an option of wearing the device that many people wear, that’s comfortable and also corrects your vision and gives you this valuable information, you’re likely to do that over than, let’s say, pricking your finger,” Otis said.

Otis described several breakthrough technologies that Google has been working on for the last couple of years. One is miniaturization. “We need to make things really small. The chips, the passive components, the power supplies, the antennas: Everything needs to shrink,” he said. “It’s not just making it small, it has to be flexible. It has to be essentially two-dimensional, mass-producible and extremely cheap.”

Otis described smart contact lenses as not just another gadget. “It’s really part of an ecosystem that can form a new type of proactive healthcare. We’re going to work really hard on that,” he said.

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