Contact with the future

A few months ago I wrote a piece about Google’s new ‘Google Glasses’, waffling on about how they might potentially be used to collect invasive amounts of information, and the pervasive creep of such smart technologies into our lives. It seemed to capture the zeitgeist and concerns of a lot of readers (well… both of you…) and it got punted about t’internet for a short time. Now however those clever folks at Google have come up with something far more interesting, and there has been barely a whisper (or beep) about it.

They are developing a kind of ‘Smart Contact Lense’ with integrated sensors and circuitry that are able to monitor blood sugar levels. While this might not sound the most exciting technological development (when, say, compared to being able to play ‘Candy Crush’ on your Google Glasses while appearing to all intents and purposes to read the newspaper, or listen to your Great Aunt’s laments about her angina…) but it could be revolutionary for those with diabetes.

Diabetes is a metabolic disease in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced. There are two main types, early onset, mostly in children, and later onset in adults. Basically it’s pretty grim, and there really is no known cure. Instead, management concentrates on keeping blood sugar levels as close to normal (“euglycemia”) as possible, without causing hypoglycaemia. This is done through injection or intake of insulin to lower ‘spikes’ in blood sugar. The problem is that people with diabetes have to vigilantly monitor their blood-glucose levels or they risk major problems like passing out, and in extreme cases, coma, or such trivialities as death. And the bad news is that these ‘spikes’ can be caused by pretty much anything; eating, exercise, sweating, drinking, etc, etc.

Those that are not able to regulate their own blood sugar levels have to monitor themselves frequently, often by drawing a very small blood sample from the tip of their finger… mostly painless, but a pain in the backside, and not exactly romantic on a  first dinner date. So these cunning contacts lenses monitor bloody sugars in the tears of the eye; here is what the Google X team has to say for itself:

We’re now testing a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturised glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds. It’s still early days for this technology, but we’ve completed multiple clinical research studies which are helping to refine our prototype. We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease.”

While this technology may be five years or more from any potential general release, Google is in talks with the Food and Drug Administration in the US. We have indeed come a long way since 1508 when  that ‘visionary’ (sorry…) da Vinci thought up the idea of inserting a thin film of glass over the eye to correct his vision, and 1823 when the British physicist John Herschel came up with the first practical design for contact lenses! Interesting too that Google appear to be moving into the realm of technological medicine, but as a contact lense wearer, and one with a history of diabetes in the family, I see this as no bad thing. If, that is, I have my lenses in!

Google lense

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