(AP) Google contact lens could be option for diabetics
By MARTHA MENDOZA
AP National Writer
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.
Brian Otis gingerly holds what looks like a typical contact lens on his index finger. Look closer. Sandwiched in this lens are two twinkling glitter-specks loaded with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors. It’s ringed with a hair-thin antenna. Together these remarkable miniature electronics can monitor glucose levels in tears of diabetics and then wirelessly transmit them to a handheld device.
During years of soldering hair-thin wires to miniaturize electronics, Otis burned his fingertips so often that he can no longer feel the tiny chips he made from scratch in Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, a small price to pay for what he says is the smallest wireless glucose sensor ever made.
Just 35 miles away in the beach town of Santa Cruz, high school soccer coach and university senior Michael Vahradian, 21, has his own set of fingertip callouses, his from pricking himself up to 10 times a day for the past 17 years to draw blood for his glucose meter. A cellphone-sized pump on his hip that attaches to a flexible tube implanted in his stomach shoots rapid-acting insulin into his body around the clock.
The idea that all of that monitoring could be going on passively, through a contact lens, is especially promising for the world’s 382 million diabetics who need insulin and keep a close watch on their blood sugar.
The prototype, which Google says will take at least five years to reach consumers, is one of several medical devices being designed by companies to make glucose monitoring for diabetic patients more convenient and less invasive than traditional finger pricks.
The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car, Google’s Web-surfing eyeglasses and Project Loon, a network of large balloons designed to beam the Internet to unwired places.
But research on the contact lenses began several years earlier at the University of Washington, where scientists worked under National Science Foundation funding. Until Thursday, when Google shared information about the project with The Associated Press, the work had been kept under wraps.
American Diabetes Association board chair Dwight Holing said he’s gratified that creative scientists are searching for solutions for people with diabetes but warned that the device must provide accurate and timely information.
Other non-needle glucose monitoring systems are also in the works, including a similar contact lens by Netherlands-based NovioSense, a minuscule, flexible spring that is tucked under an eyelid. Israel-based OrSense has already tested a thumb cuff, and there have been early designs for tattoos and saliva sensors.
A wristwatch monitor was approved by the FDA in 2001, but patients said the low level electric currents pulling fluid from their skin was painful, and it was buggy.
Palo Alto Medical Foundation endocrinologist Dr. Larry Levin said it was remarkable and important that a tech firm like Google is getting into the medical field and that he’d like to be able to offer his patients a pain-free alternative from either pricking their fingers or living with a thick needle embedded in their stomach for constant monitoring.
Worldwide, the glucose-monitoring devices market is expected to be more than $16 billion by the end of this year, according to analysts at Renub Research.
The Google team built the wireless chips in clean rooms and used advanced engineering to get integrated circuits and a glucose sensor into such a small space.
Researchers also had to build in a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device enough to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second. The embedded electronics in the lens don’t obscure vision because they lie outside the eye’s pupil and iris.
Google is now looking for partners with experience bringing similar products to market. Google officials declined to say how many people worked on the project or how much the firm has invested in it.
Dr. David Klonoff, medical director of the diabetes research institute at Mills-Peninsula Health Services in San Mateo, worked with Google to see whether glucose is present in tears and whether the amount of glucose is proportional to the amount of glucose in blood. He’s still analyzing but optimistic about his findings and warns there are many potential pitfalls.
One is figuring out how to correlate glucose levels in tears as compared with blood. And what happens on windy days, while chopping onions or during very sad movies? As with any medical device, it would need to be tested and proved accurate, safe, and at least as good as other types of glucose sensors available now to win FDA approval.
Karen Rose Tank, who left her career as an economist to be a health and wellness coach after her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis 18 years ago, also is encouraged that new glucose monitoring methods may be on the horizon.
Follow Martha Mendoza at https://twitter.com/mendozamartha