MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google on Thursday unveiled a contact lens that monitors glucose levels in tears, a potential reprieve for millions of diabetics who have to jab their fingers to draw their blood up to 10 times a day.
The prototype, which Google says will take at least five years to reach consumers, is one of several devices being designed by companies to make glucose monitoring for diabetic patients more convenient and less invasive than the traditional finger pricks.
The lenses use a minuscule glucose sensor and a wireless transmitter to help those among the world’s 382 million diabetics who need insulin keep a close watch on their blood sugar and adjust their dose.
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 the project, the work had been kept under wraps.
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“You can take it to a certain level in an academic setting, but at Google we were given the latitude to invest in this project,” said one of the lead researchers, Brian Otis.
The device looked like a typical contact lens when Otis held one on his index finger. On closer examination, sandwiched in the lens are two twinkling glitter-specks loaded with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors. It’s ringed with a hair-thin antenna.
“It doesn’t look like much, but it was a crazy amount of work to get everything so very small,” Otis said at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
Other nonneedle glucose-monitoring systems are in the works, including a similar contact lens by Netherlands-based NovioSense, and Israel-based OrSense has tested a thumb cuff.
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.
Many challenges remain. Among those 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?