Nanotechnology has been sparking medical imaginations for decades. Visions of tricorders and smart cancer destroyers small enough to swallow may not be a reality just yet, but if big innovators and bigger investors like Google and Apple have their way, the future of medicine is very small and very personal. Google grabbed headlines this week with talk of a contact lens that has the capability to measure the blood glucose of diabetics through the tears it touches. According to some reports, archrival Apple is also working on a mobile blood lab that would exist as a skin patch embedded with micro-needles to check potassium and electrolytes on the fly. Do these intimate technologies have the potential to be anything more than just cool little gadgets for Silicon Valley eggheads?
The answer looks like it’s going to be yes. Wearable technology like exercise trackers and emergency alert tags have been around for many years, but they are getting smarter and smarter by the day. They’re also attracting big money from venture capital investors and intense consumer interest manifesting as crowdsourcing investment on sites like Indiegogo. FitBit, which manufactures exercise and vital sign wristbands, was the third most successful fundraiser in 2013, scooping up $73 million and putting it barely behind established EHR providers like Practice Fusion.
But tracking pulse increases or asking patients to input their sleep data after the fact is relatively simple compared to what other innovators have in mind. Wearable sensors have the potential to cut the burden of diabetes management significantly, allowing patients to live fuller lives with better control of their health.
“Managing diabetes is like having a part-time job,” says a post on Google’s blog announcing the contact lens project. “Glucose levels change frequently with normal activity like exercising or eating or even sweating. Sudden spikes or precipitous drops are dangerous and not uncommon, requiring round-the-clock monitoring. And, as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should.”
The miniaturized eye sensor uses “a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second,” explain Brain Otis and Baback Parviz, co-founders of the project. “We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.”
Apple is also getting in on the biosensor game by nabbing several engineering experts, including those with experience designing wearable blood monitoring needles and streaming mHealth sensor data. Combined with the rumored “iWatch” project, which also puts the Mac maker in competition with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, the company has all the ingredients for a wireless health monitoring suite that reflects its famously streamlined and simple-to-use design aesthetic.
For consumers, this might just have the “cool factor” necessary to incentivize them to participate in their own healthcare. For providers, it could lead to a massive avalanche of new health data that hasn’t yet found a workable place in an industry still getting used to having to sit in front of a keyboard. While some groups are eagerly calling for the inclusion of such patient-provided data as soon as Stage 3 of Meaningful Use, others are more wary about such a significant shift in how providers collect and interpret patient data.
All such products will need some thorough FDA approval before going to market, a fact that the Google team already acknowledges, unlike their spin-off colleagues at 23andMe DNA testing. “There’s still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use,” the Google blog admits. “We’ve always said that we’d seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation is declaring that the world is ‘losing the battle’ against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot.”