Apple has tasked a team of 30 engineers with developing a continuous noninvasive blood sugar monitoring technology, according to CNBC. The initiative pits Apple against a technical challenge that has thwarted researchers for years—plus competitors including Alphabet’s Verily—in a push to create a device that frees diabetics from finger-prick blood glucose readings.
Work is reportedly fairly advanced. Apple is said to be running the effort from an offsite location in Palo Alto, California. From there, a team of engineers, thought to number 30 as of last year, is working on optical sensors to measure blood glucose noninvasively through the skin. The nature of glucose and other factors means it is tough to accurately record levels using light, but Apple has reportedly advanced to the point that it is running feasibility trials and assessing its regulatory options.
With Apple already using an optical sensor in its Watch to measure heart rate, the interest in using light to track glucose suggests that technology developed in the diabetes project has a natural home in its wrist-worn device. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook told The Telegraph in 2015 the timelines for FDA clearance would deter the company from making a regulated Watch.
That said, as a continuous noninvasive blood sugar device is likely to appeal to all Type 1 diabetics, some of the 29 million Type 2 diabetics in the U.S. and proponents of the quantified-self movement, the market opportunity is large enough that Apple would have to find a path to market. The bigger question is whether Apple can buck the trend and develop a device that delivers accurate data while meeting consumer usability expectations.
Apple is the latest in a line of companies going back years that have tried to crack the challenge. The FDA approved a minimally invasive device, the GlucoWatch Biographer, back in 2001, only for the product to fail commercially. GlucoWatch used reverse iontophoresis to shuttle glucose across the skin for measurement. But, as the FDA noted, this meant its readings could “differ substantially” and somewhat unpredictably from blood glucose levels. Studies linked the device to frequent false alarms. Calibration was time-consuming, and some users found the device uncomfortable.
The size of the market meant the travails of GlucoWatch did little to deter interest in developing new devices to measure glucose, but the field is still a long way from delivering the sort of sensors reportedly envisaged by Apple. Two medtech companies planned to bring minimally or noninvasive products to market last year, but timelines seemed to have slipped.
EyeSense, which spun off from Ciba Vision in 2006, is working on a chemical sensor for implantation into the eye. Once in place, users can read the sensor by placing a photometer close to the eye to give a glucose reading. The other company that was aiming for a 2016 launch, Nemaura Medical, is developing a CE-marked reusable sensor patch based on the same reverse iontophoresis process as the GlucoWatch.
A slew of other companies are developing monitoring products built on optical, transdermal and electrochemical processes designed to glean glucose readings from the ear, eye, skin and breath, including Verily through its partnership with Novartis. If it chooses, Apple can outspend the competition, but the nature of the challenge of noninvasive glucose monitoring means money will not necessarily translate into clinical success.