Google embarks on smart contact lenses for diabetics

What if people with diabetes didn't have to prick their fingers several times a day to conduct blood sugar tests -- but instead could simply wear contacts?

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read
A prototype of Google's smart contact lens that could measure glucose levels in people with diabetes. Google

Google has been working on smart contact lenses embedded with sensors "so small they look like bits of glitter" and an antenna "thinner than a human hair."

But these lenses aren't being developed to give people super-human sight or cast the Internet over their field of view -- rather, they could potentially help diabetics monitor their glucose levels.

Google announced Thursday that it's been working on this secret project at its Google[x] research lab. Not only has it developed prototypes of these smart contact lenses, but it's also done multiple clinical research studies, met with the US Food and Drug Administration, and is looking for potential partners to bring the product to market.

"We're now testing a smart contact lens that's built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material," the project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz wrote in a blog post. "We're testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second."

Diabetes is said to be one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. According to Google, it affects one in 19 people around the globe. In order to keep blood sugar levels in check, diabetics must give themselves finger prick blood tests throughout the day.

These tests can be time consuming and painful. But they're crucial -- if glucose levels get out of control, diabetics risk damage to their eyes, kidneys, and heart.

For years scientists have been investigating other ways to test blood sugar levels. One branch of research has been exploring breathalyzers as a way to detect heightened glucose levels. Researchers have also looked into using tears for glucose tracking, which is where the idea of a contact lens came along.

Using tears is complicated, however, because it's been hard for scientists to collect tears for testing. So, it's still unclear how effective this body fluid works in measuring glucose levels. Additionally, this product is far off from any sort of mainstream use. Not only does Google need to find partners to get the contact lenses to market, but it also needs to go through the arduous FDA clearance process.

Besides blood sugar testing, Google also hopes that the smart contact lenses can warn users if their glucose levels are high or low.

"We're exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds," Otis and Parviz wrote. "We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease."