Google eyes diabetes with a glucose-monitoring contact lens

Google has revealed it is working on a glucose-monitoring contact lens.--Courtesy of Google

Following speculation about what a Google ($GOOG) R&D team might have been doing at a December FDA meeting, the search engine giant has confirmed it's inventing a contact lens to help diabetes patients monitor their glucose levels. Google is now testing the lens, which measures glucose in tears with a miniaturized sensor and wireless chip. The prototype can take one measurement per second, the company says on its blog.

It's not exactly the Google Glass of medicine, but the contact lens is coming out of Google X, the same stealthy R&D group that developed the web-searching spectacles. Among the attendees of the December FDA meeting was Andrew Conrad, the former chief scientist at the blood screening firm LabCorp, who joined Google X last spring. Also at the table was Brian Otis, a University of Washington researcher who co-developed a contact lens with miniaturized components such as a display and processor, FierceMedicalDevices reported at the time.

Now we know what all those smart folks were cooking up at Google X. According to the blog, the glucose sensor is embedded in two layers of soft contact lens material. The company has completed "multiple clinical research studies" and is investigating whether future iterations of the technology could serve as an early warning system for diabetics, perhaps with tiny LED lights that would light up to indicate when glucose levels are too low or too high.

"We're in discussions with the FDA, but there's still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use," wrote Otis and the project's other co-founder, Babak Parvizat, on Google's blog. They add that they will be searching for partners who have experience bringing such products to market.

Google could very well find an enthusiastic partner, as the market for smart, wearable medical devices is heating up. In November, Belgian medical device company iSTAR Medical SA raised nearly $5.4 million to develop an ophthalmic implant for treating glaucoma. And in December, Apple ($AAPL) secured a patent for a heart rate monitor that can be embedded in mobile devices.

Otis and Parvizat acknowledge in the Google blog item that a contact lens for people with diabetes may seem a bit speculative, but "at a time when the International Diabetes Federation is declaring that the world is 'losing the battle' against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot," they say.

- read more on Google's blog
- here's Technology Review's take

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