Alcon/Goggle partnership focuses on “smart lens” for the eye

Google and Novartis are developing a contact lens for diabetics that monitors the glucose contained in tears. But such high-tech devices will be expensive and may not be commercially available for years.CREDIT: Novartis.)

Continuous glucose monitoring – without ever a needle stick _ could be available in about five years for the more than 29.1 million Americans living with diabetes.

Fort-Worth based Alcon has teamed up with technology giant Google Inc. to develop a contact lens that will provide second-to-second glucose monitoring by measuring the “blood sugar” in tears, said Jeff George, CEO and global head of Alcon.

New “smart lens” technology is also being used to develop a lens for people living with presbyopia who can no longer read and do other close-up work without glasses, George said at a May 28 meeting at the Rotary Club of Fort Worth.

Smart lens technology involves non-invasive sensors, microchips and other miniaturized electronics that are embedded within contact lenses, explains a media release from Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that bought Alcon in 2011.

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“We entered into the Google partnership because Google is the master of miniaturization. … They are almost putting a mini computer into the eyes with a contact” lens, said George, who joined Novartis in 2007 and was appointed global head of Alcon in May 2014.

Both lenses are currently in “early stage, preclinical development,” but they have the potential to help millions of people, George said.

Rather than measure glucose in a drop of blood, the new lens calculates the amount of glucose in tears that seep into the porous lenses.

“Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day. It’s disruptive, and it’s painful. And, as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should,” wrote Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, co-founders of the Google X project, in a posting on Google’s official blog last year.

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For people with diabetes, the lens will constantly calculate glucose levels and can interface with an insulin pump to automatically deliver the precise amount of insulin needed under various circumstances. The monitor also connects wirelessly to mobile devices, including smart phones, to allow physicians and patients to monitor data in real time.

Uncontrolled blood sugar puts people at risk for diabetes complications, including damage to the eyes, kidneys and heart. Worldwide, some 93 million people have diabetic retinopathy, damage to small blood vessels in the retina, that may result in blindness, George said.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that 29.1 million Americans have diabetes – 21 million diagnosed and 8.1 million undiagnosed. Worldwide the figure is estimated at 371 million, half undiagnosed.

A second indication for the smart lens is to restore and replicate the normal eye’s ability to auto-focus on objects both near and far.

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Presbyopia is a visual condition common in people over 50 in which loss of elasticity in the lens of the eye causes an inability to focus sharply on near objects, especially small print in dim light.

It is the reason so many older people have difficulty reading restaurant menus and threading needles.

The smart lens has the potential to provide “accommodative vision correction to help restore the eye’s natural auto-focus on near objects in the form of an accommodative contact lens or intraocular lens as part of cataract treatment,” according to a news release from Novartis.

The new lens will “auto-focus like a camera … to allow the wearer to look right in front of himself and at a distance, almost immediately,” George said.

Fort Worth-based Alcon is the eye care unit of Novartis Group, which announced the deal with Google in July 2014. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.