Google is developing smart contact lenses capable of detecting glucose levels in tears offering a blood-free alternative to diabetics to keep an eye on their blood sugar.
Now part of the research in Google’s super-secret X laboratory known for developing ambitious ideas such as driverless cars, web-surfing glasses or balloon-based Internet, the project was initiated at the University of Washington several years ago.
After the original funding dried out, Google has taken over and provided a financial boost for the development. Until today, the project has been kept completely secret.
"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 researchers, Brian Otis.
"The beautiful thing is we're leveraging all of the innovation in the semiconductor industry that was aimed at making cell-phones smaller and more powerful."
According to Google, it will take at least five years to make the technology, consisting of a conventional contact lens, a miniature glucose sensor and a wireless transmitter, ready for the market.
"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.
Hailed as the smallest wireless glucose sensor ever made, the device took years to be engineered with electronics as thin as a human hair being built basically from a scratch.
The system uses energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second. The embedded electronics in the lens do not obscure vision because they lie outside the eye's pupil and iris.
Google is now looking for partners with experience bringing similar products to market. It declined to say how many people worked on the project, or how much the firm has invested in it.
The team believes the wearable medical device would be of great interest to some 382 million diabetics around the world who have to pierce their fingers about ten times a day to measure their blood sugar.
"I remember at first it was really hard to make the needle sticks a habit because it hurt so much,” said 21-year old Californian high school football coach and university senior Michael Vahradian, who has been pricking himself up to 10 times a day for the past 17 years.
"And there are still times I don't want to do it; it hurts and it's inconvenient. When I'm hanging out with friends, heading down to the beach to body surf or going to lunch, I have to hold everyone up to take my blood sugar."
Karen Tank, who left her career as an economist to be a health and wellness coach after her Type 1 diabetes diagnosis 18 years ago, is also encouraged that new glucose monitoring methods may be on the horizon.
"It's really exciting that some of the big tech companies are getting into this market," she said. "They bring so much ingenuity; they're able to look outside the box."
However, American Diabetes Association board chairman Dwight Holing warned such a device would have to provide extremely accurate and timely information in order to be helpful rather than harmful.
"People with diabetes base very important health care decisions on the data we get from our monitors," he said.
An early clinical research study with real patients was encouraging, but there are many potential pitfalls yet to come, said University of North Carolina diabetes researcher Dr John Buse, who was briefed by Google on the lens last week.
"This has the potential to be a real game changer," he said, "but the devil is in the details."
Google is not the only company exploring innovative approaches to glucose-monitoring systems. Dutch company NovioSense has adopted a similar strategy, developing a minuscule and flexible spring that could be placed under an eyelid.
Israel-based OrSense has already tested a thumb cuff, and there have been early designs for tattoos and saliva sensors.
In 2001, FDA approved a wristband glucose monitor. However, patients complained about the low level electric currents pulling fluid from their skin in a painful way and about the device being prone to glitches.