Google unveiled a contact lens on Thursday that monitors glucose levels in tears, a potential reprieve for millions of diabetics who have to jab their fingers to draw their own blood as often as 10 times a day.
The prototype, which Google says will take at least five years to reach consumers, is one of several medical devices being designed by companies to make glucose monitoring for diabetic patients more convenient and less invasive than the traditional finger pricks.
"We're in discussions with the FDA, but there's still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use," Google said on its blog.
The tech giant said it plans to look for partners "who are experts in bringing products like this to market."
The lenses will use a minuscule glucose sensor and a wireless transmitter to help the world's 382 million diabetics keep a close watch on their blood sugar and adjust their doses of insulin.
The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab, which also came up with a driverless car, Web-surfing eyeglasses and Project Loon, a network of large balloons designed to beam the Internet to unwired places.
But research on the contact lenses began several years earlier at the University of Washington, where scientists worked under National Science Foundation funding. Until Thursday, their work had been kept under wraps.
"You can take it to a certain level in an academic setting, but at Google we were given the latitude to invest in this project," one of the lead researchers, Brian Otis, told The Associated Press. "The beautiful thing is, we're leveraging all of the innovation in the semiconductor industry that was aimed at making cellphones smaller and more powerful."
American Diabetes Association board Chair Dwight Holing said he's gratified that creative scientists are searching for solutions for people with diabetes but warned that the device must provide accurate and timely information.
"People with diabetes base very important health care decisions on the data we get from our monitors," he said.
The device looked like a typical contact lens when Otis held one on his index finger. On closer examination, sandwiched in the lens are two glittering specks, each of which is loaded with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors. It's ringed with a hair-thin antenna.
"It doesn't look like much, but it was a crazy amount of work to get everything so very small," Otis said at Google's Silicon Valley headquarters. It took years of soldering hair-thin wires to miniaturize electronics, essentially building tiny chips from scratch, to make what Otis said is the smallest wireless glucose sensor ever made.
Other non-needle glucose-monitoring systems are also in the works, including a similar contact lens by Netherlands-based NovioSense. Israel-based OrSense has already tested a thumb cuff, and there have been early designs for tattoos and saliva sensors.
Worldwide, the glucose-monitoring devices market is expected to be more than $16 billion by the end of this year, according to analysts at Renub Research.
Google is now looking for partners with experience bringing similar products to market. Company officials declined to say how many people worked on the project, or how much the firm has invested in it.
An early, outsourced clinical research study with real patients was encouraging, but there are many potential pitfalls yet to come, said University of North Carolina diabetes researcher John Buse, who was briefed by Google on the lens last week.
"This has the potential to be a real game changer," he said, "but the devil is in the details."
Among those is figuring out how to correlate glucose levels in tears as compared with blood. And what happens on windy days, while you're chopping onions or during very sad movies? As with any medical device, to win FDA approval it would need to be tested and proved accurate, safe and at least as good as other types of glucose sensors available now.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press