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Google Shuts Down Its mHealth Quest for a Glucose-Sensing Contact Lens

Google's Chief Technology Officer says researchers weren't able to develop an mHealth-enabled contact lens that could accurately measure glucose in tears, but they still see digital health uses for smart lenses.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- An mHealth project to create a glucose-sensing contact lens has been put on hold, though its creators still see promise in the digital health capabilities of a smart lens.

In a blog written last Friday by Chief Technology Officer Brian Otis, Google’s Verily division has put on hold a project to create a smart contact lens that could measure a user’s glucose levels through tears. Launched in 2014 in a partnership with Novartis’ Alcon business, the project aimed to create a new, non-invasive way for those with diabetes to check their blood sugar levels.

But Otis said researchers couldn’t find an accurate way to measure blood glucose through the eye.

“Our clinical work on the glucose-sensing lens demonstrated that there was insufficient consistency in our measurements of the correlation between tear glucose and blood glucose concentrations to support the requirements of a medical device,” he wrote. “In part, this was associated with the challenges of obtaining reliable tear glucose readings in the complex on-eye environment. For example, we found that interference from biomolecules in tears resulted in challenges in obtaining accurate glucose readings from the small quantities of glucose in the tear film. In addition, our clinical studies have demonstrated challenges in achieving the steady state conditions necessary for reliable tear glucose readings.”

The project’s demise wasn’t entirely unexpected. Critics have long maintained that the complex nature of the eye makes it a bad choice to track blood glucose – which those with diabetes need to manage reliably to control their chronic disease. Similar attempts to create a smartwatch or wearable that can track blood glucose levels through pores on the wrist have also failed.

Despite this project’s demise, researchers are finding value in smart contact lenses.

Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School reported that a team of researchers had developed a smart contact lens that could deliver timed doses of medication to the eye. And two years ago, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center reported that sensor-embedded contact lenses could be used to measure glaucoma progression.

In his blog, Otis said Verily’s Smart Len program has seen some successes.

“The Smart Lens program has evolved into a versatile electronics platform that can support actions, like sensing and transmitting data, on the eye,” he wrote. “We have developed methods to integrate wireless electronics and miniaturized sensors into a contact lens and built thousands of lenses in numerous form factors.”

“Up to this point, we have directed the electronics platform at three different areas of care,” he added. “In addition to the original glucose-sensing lens, we have been working on a smart accommodating contact lens for presbyopia and a smart intraocular lens for improving sight following cataract surgery. Along the way, we have performed many clinical study sessions with individual users, collecting hundreds of thousands of biological data points from on-eye readings.”

Otis also noted that Verily would continue its work with Alcon and others – including Dexcom, Onduo and Sanofi – to develop, among other things, new mHealth platforms for continuously tracking blood glucose levels and providing patients and doctors with care management resources.

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