The National Diabetes Education Program states there are more than 25 million Americans who are diabetic. That number is over 8 percent of all people in the United States who have to take a blood test, multiple times a day, to make sure their blood sugar is at the proper level. Needless to say, it's a big burden to everyone with diabetes to prick themselves, suffering pain on a daily basis just to keep healthy. It should be no big surprise that many people who suffer diabetes do not check their glucose levels as regularly as they should.
Medical experts have been looking for alternate ways to measure glucose for a long time. One promising method involves using the fluid in the eye, like tears. The difficulty lies in being able to gather and properly analyze a sample in the right way. Different companies and research teams have considered various methods, among them smart contact lenses.
Clear as Glass
Currently, the smart lenses under development are not like a smartphone. Unlike those ubiquitous communication devices, smart contacts will serve a limited, but very important purpose — at least at first. Even though the current generation of lenses has one specific purpose, there are already plans to do more in the future.
Google, under the direction of the team that created Google Glass, and in concert with the pharmaceutical firm Novartis, is currently working on FDA approval to create the first smart contacts in order to help patients manage diabetes without blood tests — and that may be only the beginning.
The move to put all information online also includes medical information. Just as Google Glass was able to access the internet, the same will theoretically be true of smart contacts, meaning your eye doctor can examine your eyes remotely, or potentially even treat you from a distance.
Currently, the goal is to create a pair of contacts with a microchip and a nearly imperceptible circuit. Instead of using blood, it will use the tears lubricating the eye to assess a diabetic's glucose level and send the information directly to a mobile device, so the wearer will know at all times what exactly his or her blood sugar level might be.
The lenses contain a small hole through which tear fluid can emerge and touch a monitor, which would constantly monitor the wearer's blood glucose levels. At this point in development, the device can take one reading per second. Inside the lens is also a tiny antenna, which sends the information to the wearer's mobile device. The low-powered microchip inside the lens will be powered by the mobile device, communicating and transmitting via RFID (radio-frequency identification). Included in all this technology, nearly invisible to the human eye, will be measures to prevent the lens from overheating.
Should the smart contacts be successful, the plans are to move beyond quality of life for diabetics into a whole range of technological devices that allow people to monitor and maintain their health. There are already fitness apps which monitor nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns. This next step will go on to monitor far more than heart rate and blood pressure, allowing the user to gain preliminary diagnoses, perhaps even catching medical issues before they become bigger problems.
Novartis is also looking into ways to enhance the standard use of contact lenses, allowing people who need them to assist their vision to focus on close objects like a camera lens. Those who have difficulty reading would no longer need a separate pair of glasses — the lenses would autofocus at need.
The Next Step
The medical technology is only the first piece. Many are concerned, and rightly so, about the intimate medical data that will be transmitted through the air. Mobile security is a big issue to tackle in the creation of smart contacts. Not only is there a question of criminals accessing sensitive personal data, there is concern around the companies that will be collecting the data, which may use it for its own purposes, or be likewise vulnerable to hacking attempts from unscrupulous characters.
Google spokespersons are quick to assure those who worry about security of their personal information that the data will not ever become part of their servers. In fact, it won't even go through their computers in the same way they gather information from their other services.
The internet giant says they have taken steps to see that the transmitted data is safe from outside interference. This is especially important with medical data, given that the wrong information could be potentially fatal.
Smart lenses have a long way to go between now and potential approval from the FDA, but they are looking more and more like a potential way for diabetics, and eventually, everyone, to improve their health and quality of life.
Laura O’Donnell writes smart content on behalf of the LASIK surgeons at EyeCare 20/20. As an avid writer and learner, she loves to use her skills for engaging others in important topics in creative and effective ways. When she is not working, she loves meeting new people, traveling, and bringing her Pinterest dreams to life. Find her on LinkedIn.