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Last week Google and Novartis announced that they’re teaming up to develop contact lenses that monitor glucose levels and automatically adjust their focus. But these could be just the start of a clever new product category. From cancer detection and drug delivery to reality augmentation and night vision, our eyes offer unique opportunities for both health monitoring and enhancement.

“Now is the time to put a little computer and a lot of miniaturized technologies in the contact lens,” says Franck Leveiller, head of research and development in the Novartis eye care division.

One of the Novartis-Google prototype lenses contains a device about the size of a speck of glitter that measures glucose in tears. A wireless antenna then transmits the measurements to an external device. It’s designed to ease the burden of diabetics who otherwise have to prick their fingers to test their blood sugar levels.

“I have many patients that are managing diabetes, and they described it as having a part-time job. It’s so arduous to monitor,” says Thomas Quinn, who is head of the American Optometric Association’s contact lens and cornea section. “To have a way that patients can do that more easily and get some of their life back is really exciting.”

Glucose isn’t the only thing that can be measured from tears rather than a blood sample, says Quinn. Tears also contain a chemical called lacryglobin that serves as a biomarker for breast, colon, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Monitoring lacryglobin levels could be particularly useful for cancer patients who are in remission, Quinn says.

Quinn also believes that drug delivery may be another use for future contact lenses. If a lens could dispense medication slowly over long periods of time, it would be better for patients than the short, concentrated doses provided by eye drops, he says. Such a lens is not easy to make, though (see “A Drug-Dispensing Lens”).

The autofocusing lens is in an earlier stage of development, but the goal is for it to adjust its shape depending on where the eye is looking, which would be especially helpful for people who need reading glasses. A current prototype of the lens uses photodiodes to detect light hitting the eye and determine whether the eye is directed downward. Leveiller says the team is also looking at other possible techniques.

Google and Novartis are far from the only ones interesting in upgrading the contact lens with such new capabilities. In Switzerland, a company called Sensimed is working on a contact lens that measures the intraocular pressure that results from the liquid buildup in the eyes of glaucoma patients (see “Glaucoma Test in a Contact Lens”). And researchers at the University of Michigan are using graphene to make infrared-sensitive contact lenses—the vision, as it were, is that these might one day provide some form of night vision without the bulky headgear.

A Seattle-based company, Innovega, meanwhile, has developed a contact lens with a small area that filters specific bands of red, green, and blue light, giving users the ability to focus on a very small, high resolution display less than an inch away from their eyes without interfering with normal vision. That makes tiny displays attached to glasses look more like IMAX movie screens, says the company’s CEO, Steve Willey. Together, the lens and display are called iOptik.

Plenty of challenges still remain before we’re all walking around with glucose-monitoring, cancer-detecting, drug-delivering super night vision. Some prototypes out there are unusually thick, Quinn says, and some use traditional, rigid electronics where clear, flexible alternatives would be preferable. And, of course, all will have to pass regulatory approval to show they are safe and effective.

Jeff George, the head of the Novartis eye care division, is certainly optimistic about Google’s smart lens. “Google X’s team refers to themselves as a ‘moon shot factory.’ I’d view this as better than a moon shot given what we’ve seen,” he says.

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Tagged: Biomedicine, Google, health care, Novartis

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