MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (AP) — Brian Otis gingerly holds what looks like a typical contact lens on his index finger.
Look closer. Sandwiched in this lens are two twinkling glitter-specks loaded with tens of thousands of miniaturized transistors. It’s ringed with a hair-thin antenna. Together these remarkable miniature electronics can monitor glucose levels in tears of diabetics and then wirelessly transmit them to a handheld device.
“It doesn’t look like much, but it was a crazy amount of work to get everything so very small,” he said before the project was unveiled last week.
During years of soldering hair-thin wires to miniaturize electronics, Otis burned his fingertips so often that he can no longer feel the tiny chips he made from scratch in Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, a small price to pay for what he says is the smallest wireless glucose sensor ever made.
Just 35 miles away in the beach town of Santa Cruz, high school soccer coach and university senior Michael Vahradian, 21, has his own set of fingertip callouses, his from pricking himself up to 10 times a day for the past 17 years to draw blood for his glucose meter. A cellphone-sized pump on his hip that attaches to a flexible tube implanted in his stomach shoots rapid-acting insulin into his body around the clock.
“I remember at first it was really hard to make the needle sticks a habit because it hurt so much,” he said. “And there are still times I don’t want to do it — it hurts and it’s inconvenient.”
The idea that all of that monitoring could be going on passively, through a contact lens, is especially promising for the world’s 382 million diabetics who need insulin and keep a close watch on their blood sugar.
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 traditional finger pricks.
The contact lenses were developed during the past 18 months in the clandestine Google X lab that also came up with a driverless car, Google’s 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.
“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,” Otis said. “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.”
Other non-needle glucose monitoring systems are also in the works, including a similar contact lens by Netherlands-based NovioSense, a minuscule, flexible spring that is tucked under an eyelid. Israel-based OrSense has already tested a thumb cuff, and there have been early designs for tattoos and saliva sensors.
A wristwatch monitor was approved by the FDA in 2001, but patients said the low-level electric currents pulling fluid from their skin were painful, and the monitor was buggy.
The Google team built the wireless chips in clean rooms and used advanced engineering to get integrated circuits and a glucose sensor into such a small space.
Researchers also had to build in a system to pull energy from incoming radio frequency waves to power the device enough to collect and transmit one glucose reading per second. The embedded electronics in the lens don’t obscure vision because they lie outside the eye’s pupil and iris.