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16th November 2014

Smart contact lenses for diabetics: visionary or rose tinted?

For the millions of diabetics who monitor blood sugar levels every day by pricking their fingers with needles or special meters, the prospect of contact lenses able to track glucose levels in the blink of an eye would be a welcome alternative.

At least that’s according to Google, which revealed it had partnered with two University of Washington professors to develop just such contact lenses this year.

According to the original blog post the idea is to measure glucose levels in tears using miniaturized sensors and transmitting the data through an antenna no thicker than a human hair. Google says it is already testing a prototype lens that can check blood sugar levels every second.

The news was met with reactions ranging from “wow” and “when can I have some?” Laura Cleverly, a student nurse and type I diabetes suffer who tweets as @ninjadiabetic, told me she would love to give the Google lenses a try.

“I’ve lived with Type 1 diabetes for 12 years and new technologies that will not only improve my diabetes control, but will also make my life easier, are very important to me and for my management of diabetes.”

Laura who monitors her blood glucose levels by pricking her fingers at least eight times a day, more if she is unwell, stressed anxious, explained that she would relish the chance to check her blood sugar levels using contacts.

“Testing my blood sugars involves pricking the tips of my fingers with a lancet to draw blood. The blood is then put onto a test strip and is analysed by the blood glucose meter. This then enables me to make decisions about how I am going to manage my diabetes.

“Being able to have an accurate reading of my blood glucose levels, at any time of the day, without needing to prick my fingers or worry about where I will dispose of my used test strips and lancets would be a welcome change.”

Hype or hypoglycemia?

Clearly there is enthusiasm for Google’s lenses in the diabetes community, but is it justified?

Since Google announced it was working on the lenses the discussion has focused – all puns intended – on how they will actually work. UK Director of Health Intelligence, Simon O’Neill, told us that while they are an interesting concept, more details are needed.

“Many people with Type 1 diabetes and some with Type 2 diabetes monitor their blood glucose level to help manage their condition and so help reduce their risk of health complications such as amputation and blindness. Because of this, we welcome any investment in new technology that might one day have the potential to make this easier for people or to offer them more choice.

“But it is important to stress that without us knowing much more about this technology, we have no idea how likely it is to develop into something that is routinely available or how long this might take to happen.”

Unfortunately, neither the smart lens project leaders Brian Otis and Babak Parvis nor Google were willing to provide any specifics when we asked, instead responding only that the technology was in the early stages of development.

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Header Photo credit: Niek Beck/Flickr