Novartis delays clinical trial start for Google contact lenses

Novartis had planned to start trials of the lenses in 2016.

Novartis has scrapped its commitment to start clinical trials of its Google-partnered contact lenses in 2016. Having predicted 14 months ago that testing in humans would start this year, Novartis has now told Reuters “it is too early to say when exactly human clinical trials for these lenses will begin.”

Development of the autofocusing contact lens to correct age-related long sightedness is “progressing steadily,” according to the spokesperson. But, given mounting doubts about the viability of projects developed at Google’s life sciences unit, now known as Verily, the missed target and decision not to provide a new deadline for entering the clinic raise questions about whether the contact lenses will deliver on the hype.

Novartis licensed the autofocusing contact lenses from Google in 2014. The agreement also included the license for a contact lens designed to track blood sugar levels and send the data to a smartphone. Speaking to the Financial Times at the time, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez said he would be “disappointed” if the partners failed to commercialize a lens within five years. Last September, Jimenez said the project was on track to hit his goal, adding that a lens should be in the clinic in 2016.

Now, Novartis has revealed it will miss its trial-start target, raising doubts about its ability to meet the commercialization goal. And, having been burnt once, Novartis has shied away from committing to a new start date for clinical testing.

“This is a very technically complex process and both sides are learning as we go along. We will provide updates at the appropriate time,” the spokesperson.

The 14 months between Jimenez saying the project was on track and the spokesperson rowing back from the trial-start target was a period of upheaval at Alcon, the Novartis unit responsible for the contact lens. In January, Novartis sought to improve the fortunes of its flagging Alcon unit by ousting CEO Jeff George and replacing him with ex-Hospira chief Michael Ball.

Verily also faced intense scrutiny over the period, notably after STAT looked into staff turnover and doubts about the feasibility of technologies including the glucose-monitoring contact lens.