Keeping blood sugar levels in check is an important part of life for diabetics, but this can be a daily struggle, involving pricking their fingers and taking blood samples. Now, Google may have a solution - in the form of a "smart contact lens" that measures glucose levels in tears.
Revealing their prototype, which has been in the works for the past 18 months, Google X lab members and project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz write through their company blog that many of the people they have talked to "say managing their diabetes is like having a part-time job."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), diabetes affects 347 million people worldwide, and in 2004 alone, 3.4 million people died as a result of high fasting blood sugar.
This highlights the importance of monitoring blood glucose levels in diabetics, which the Google X project team aims to tackle.
Aside from mortality, Otis and Parviz note that uncontrolled blood sugar increases risks for damaging the eyes, kidneys and heart.
And because glucose levels can change suddenly with normal activities, such as exercising, eating or sweating, the team says that "round the clock" monitoring is imperative.
Lens employs tiny chips, sensors and an antenna
Though some diabetics wear glucose sensors embedded under their skin, Otis and Parviz say they still need to prick their finger, resulting in many diabetics checking blood glucose levels less often.
So how did the team decide on a contact lens to measure glucose levels?
The 'smart contact lens' uses tiny chips and sensors, and a miniature antenna to measure glucose levels in tears.
Image credit: Google
They write that previously, scientists have looked into using bodily fluids, such as tears, to track glucose levels, but the difficulty has been in the fact that tears are not easily collected.
This led the Google X team to try using tiny chips and sensors, as well as an antenna "thinner than a human hair," to measure tear glucose with better accuracy.
They have come up with a prototype smart lens, which looks very much like a normal contact lens with lines around the outside.
Embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material is a tiny wireless chip and glucose sensor. Otis and Parviz report they are testing prototypes that can produce one reading per second.
'Early days' in promising tool for diabetics
The project members say they want the lens to alert the wearer when glucose levels are getting out of control, so they are looking into using miniature LED lights that could light up as a warning.
"It's still early days for this technology," they write, but they add that they have already completed several clinical research studies to help refine the prototype, with the hope that their lens could one day help diabetics manage their condition.
Though Otis and Parviz say they are working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are still many more steps to take before the technology can be used by diabetics - a process which will likely take a further 5 years for the lens to reach consumers.
The Google X team is currently looking for partners and experts to join the project and develop apps for the lens.
But Otis and Parviz are passionate about their project. They write:
Several developments have occurred recently in the field of wearable monitoring devices. A team from Taiwan unveiled their tooth sensor that monitors oral activity, while researchers from the University of Pittsburgh presented their calorie-counting eButton, which uses a low-power central processing unit (CPU), a random-access memory (RAM) communication interface and a Linux or Android operating system to measure portion size.
"We've always said that we'd seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and 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."
In diabetes news, researchers in Denmark recently suggested that type 2 diabetes is an inflammatory disease and other studies have suggested eating more fiber and following a Mediterranean diet could reduce risks of developing diabetes.