16 Jul 2014
Eye care subsidiary of pharma giant Novartis wants to measure glucose levels in tear fluid.
Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis has signed a deal to license Google’s so-called “smart lens” technology for medical applications.
It is hoped that the sensor-enabled contact lenses, currently under development at the Google[x] research laboratories, will enable diabetes patients to monitor their glucose levels continuously and without the need to resort to needles and twice-daily blood tests.
Another potential application is as a novel intervention to help older people who have trouble reading and focusing on close-up objects. The technology could potentially restore the eye's natural autofocus in the form of an accommodative contact lens, or an intraocular lens inserted during refractive cataract treatment.
Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez said of the collaboration, which will take place through eye care subsidiary Alcon: “We are looking forward to working with Google to bring together their advanced technology and our extensive knowledge of biology to meet unmet medical needs. This is a key step for us to go beyond the confines of traditional disease management, starting with the eye.”
Google co-founder Sergey Brin added: "Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help improve the quality of life for millions of people.”
Under the agreement, Google[x] and Alcon will collaborate to develop a "smart lens" that has the potential to address ocular conditions. The technology is based around non-invasive sensors embedded within the contact lenses, and which can connect wirelessly to a smart phone or other device.
Alcon is also a world leader in the fast-growing area of femtosecond laser cataract surgery, following its $744 million buy-out of technology developer LenSx back in 2010.
Need for continuous monitoring
Google has not released much in the way of technological detail about the smart lenses, but in a blog post earlier this year project leaders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz – one of the key researchers behind Google Glass - wrote about the need to find better solutions for diabetics to monitor and manage their blood sugar levels.
“Uncontrolled blood sugar puts people at risk for a range of dangerous complications, some short-term and others longer term, including damage to the eyes, kidneys and heart. A friend of ours told us she worries about her mom, who once passed out from low blood sugar and drove her car off the road.”
The pair, who first worked on the approach while at the University of Washington, point out that although diabetics may only check their levels a couple of times a day, usually by pricking their fingers and testing the drops of blood, glucose levels can change very quickly.
“Sudden spikes or precipitous drops are dangerous and not uncommon, requiring round-the-clock monitoring,” they wrote. “Many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should.”
One way to do that is by monitoring glucose in tears, although the lower concentration makes that more difficult to do with good accuracy and tears are difficult to collect. “At Google[x], we wondered if miniaturized electronics might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy,” wrote Otis and Parviz.
As of January 2014, they claimed to be testing prototypes capable of generating readings at a rate of one per second, and in early discussions with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regarding future clinical use.
At the time, Google said that it was seeking commercial partners to take the technology to market. That now looks set to happen with Alcon – assuming that the deal gains the relevant anti-trust approval.
Google and Alcon are not the only ones to be working on smart contact lenses. In December 2012 a collaboration between Ghent University and the imec electronics research institute in Belgium revealed a prototype curved LCD contact lens that could behave like in-eye, adaptive sunglasses.
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