smart-contact-lensesEarlier this year, a positive piece of news caught the public’s imagination when Google announced that its secretive research department, Google X, had developed a prototype smart contact lens that monitors the glucose level in tears using a wireless chip and miniature glucose sensor embedded in the lens. The news about these smart contact lenses went viral and has been reported in blogs and websites around the world.

As diabetes is increasingly becoming a serious public health problem in New Zealand and the rest of the world, any new breakthroughs are to be welcomed. But wanted to find out more about this story and to discover if these smart contact lenses are based more on truth or fiction.

Fortunately, the University of Otago’s Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research responded and Gordon Sanderson, Associate Professor at the Dunedin School of Medicine was happy to answer our questions.

The idea to monitor glucose in tears has apparently been around since the 1930s. This would suggest that in practice the idea is difficult to implement. Is it actually a reliable way to monitor glucose levels? Can you say in a little detail why or why not? Awareness of the presence of glucose in the tears in people with diabetes has been around since the 30s, but the ability to monitor it continuously has not. The advent of soft contact lenses, particularly the disposable variety now makes this feasible. The original lenses described over 10 years ago, that were designed for this purpose contained a chemical that changed colour. The latest lenses use a small electrode embedded in the lenses to transmit information back to a sensor.

However the problems associated with wearing contact lenses may override its value, especially if the person concerned does not normally wear lenses.

Contact lenses are increasingly being considered as a method of continuous monitoring of a number of physiological functions, e.g. intraocular pressure; also as a slow release mechanism for drugs. There are few benefits to the use of contact lenses for continuous monitoring over the existing glucose monitoring technologies, except possibly the ability to provide serial data.

Also some people particularly those who already wear lenses may prefer it to regular skin-pricks for the same purpose. People with diabetes can develop peripheral nerve disease and the cornea is not immune to this; so their ability to heal after an injury may be compromised. There may be increased risks associated with contact lens wear among this group especially if they are not correctly supervised.

What happens if a person were to cry or the eyes either water or are dry for other reasons? Would that possibly affect the results? Lacrimation even excessive, probably would not affect the results bearing in mind that it is unlikely to be for sustained periods of time. Dry eyes probably would present some problems since they would also make the wearing of contact lenses difficult.

How has the NZ research community into diabetes reacted to this news? Is it considered to be a feasible project? Has there been much discussion of this within the research community? This idea has been around for about 10 years; I am not aware of any research of this nature taking place in NZ.

Researchers at the University of Ohio were also working on contact lenses to monitor blood sugar levels that would change colour. Do you know if this project has made any progress? This method was first described earlier in the decade. The wearer would be unaware of any colour change visually since the eye would adapt to this. However by looking in a mirror or using some sort of monitoring equipment these colour changes might be detected. Lenses like these may become more useful if apps were developed that would assist with monitoring on say a smart phone.

Are any researchers in NZ working on similar projects? None that I am aware of.

What would you personally like to see being done in terms of research? There is plenty of work to be done in diabetes in NZ, it is rapidly becoming a major health issue. This sort of research is probably better left to countries with larger populations and deeper research pockets, but if as a method of monitoring it helps manage the problem then we should advocate for its adoption.

So the conclusion is that there is potential for these smart contact lenses to indeed become the breakthrough in terms of monitoring glucose levels as Google suggests. There is as yet no word on how long the approval process will take but hopefully skin pricks will soon be a thing of the past for many diabetic sufferers.

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