Your eyes aren’t just the windows to your soul. They could also be the window to your health, if new contact lens technology pans out.
Researchers are working on smart contact lenses that could monitor a ton of different aspects of health, from diabetes to heart disease. Other high-tech lenses could also give wearers advanced vision capabilities and let them see augmented-reality screens.
Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first bionic eye. A device housed on a pair of glasses transmits images to an artificial implant in the eye that stimulates electrodes on the surface of the person’s retina. Israeli professor Zeev Zalevsky has already made a bionic contact lens version that doesn’t require surgery (although it’s not yet available for commercial use like the bionic eye).
“A lot of people think of contact lenses purely as a cosmetic device,” says Thomas Quinn, chair of the contact lens and cornea section of the American Optometric Association. But Quinn and others are predicting that these smart contacts — a combination of contact lenses, miniaturized electronics, and sensors — will have huge potential as medical tools far beyond vision correction.
It’s In The Eyes
Humans produce tears for practical reasons — like flushing irritants such as dust or pollen out of the eye — and also in response to emotional stimuli. And while it may be easy to dismiss the droplets running down your face as just water, tears are complex. They contain a wide variety of chemicals that could tell a doctor about the health of your entire system.
These tears could replace the blood samples that doctors turn to when diagnosing and managing conditions like diabetes and heart failure. This could be especially meaningful, since going to the doctor’s office to get blood drawn is time-intensive and the samples often need to be sent to a lab to be analysed.
Some researchers are designing special high-tech contact lenses that could continuously monitor these health indicators, among others. The ultimate idea would be for the health information collected by the contact lens to be wirelessly communicated to both you and your doctor. Below are some of the applications in the works.
Contacts To Monitor Glucose
A prototype for a glucose-sensing contact lens is in the works, thanks to a partnership recently announced between Google and Novartis. These contacts would be aimed at helping diabetics continuously monitor their blood glucose without having to prick their finger and test their blood throughout the day.
The prototype includes a miniaturized glucose sensor embedded in the contact that catches the tear fluid produced in the eye, according to Google’s Official Blog. A wireless chip the size of a piece of glitter and a tiny antenna that is “thinner than a human hair” transmit the data to an external device.
“Google is an expert at coming up with all these great gadgets. But Novartis is an expert in fabricating contact lenses,” says Quinn. Google announced its plan to develop its smart contact-lens project in January 2014.
Google is suggesting the possible development of an app for the wearer or doctor (or both), though the details haven’t been worked out yet. Novartis hopes to commercialize the product within about five years, according to Bloomberg.
Other Detectable Diseases
While this investment makes it likely that glucose-monitoring contacts will be the first to hit the commercial market, others are being researched, including the following.
Heart failure. Smart contacts could potentially be used to monitor lactic acid (l-lactate) in tear fluid, according to a 2011 study by scientists from the University of Washington. Increased lactic-acid levels can indicate heart failure, liver disease, and lung disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. The technology for the lactic-acid sensor would likely be similar in nature to the glucose sensor described above.
Certain cancers. Tears also contain a chemical called lacryglobin, which we first read about in MIT Technology Review.
“Lacryglobin has been shown at the tear levels to be linked to certain forms of cancer,” Quinn told Business Insider. “Specifically some of the more common ones — breast, colon, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancer.”
A sensor that monitors lacryglobin could be useful for people who have gone into remission and want to have a continuous monitor of whether the cancer is starting to recur. Similarly, this kind of sensor could be useful for people who have a family history of certain cancers but haven’t had yet shown any symptoms.
Glaucoma. Glaucoma, a disease most common in people over 65, is characterised by damage to the optic nerve. The damage is caused by the pressure in the eye being too high, according to the National Eye Institute.
“The scary thing about glaucoma is that with most forms of it, you’re asymptomatic. It doesn’t hurt. The optic nerve which is the part that’s damaged has no pain fibres. So you need to be looking for glaucoma,” says Quinn.
Usually, a person would need to go to the doctor to get his or her eye pressure taken. The Swiss company Sensimed has developed a sensor technology called Triggerfish for contact lenses that can monitor the pressure inside the eye.
Triggerfish has been commercialized in Europe but is still undergoing testing in the U.S.
Another area for growth in contact-lens technology is drug delivery. Many eye diseases or eye infections are treated with eyedrops. One of the downsides is that the eye gets a huge blast of the medication when the eyedrop is placed in the eye, but then it quickly dissipates.
Jerome Legerton, chief executive officer of Global Opthalmic Consultants, says that one of the biggest priorities in the industry is designing contact lenses that could steadily release medication over time, possibly 24 hours. While none of these lenses are currently available on the commercial market, Legerton says he has been closely following contact-lens patents, which indicate that this could soon be a priority for contact-lens companies.
“As a contact-lens professional, what excites me is that these kind of devices are going to open up opportunities for me to help a lot of people that I wouldn’t help otherwise with contact lenses,” Quinn told Business Insider.
Legerton agrees, but he doesn’t want to stop at just health-related applications. Contact lenses were designed to be inconspicuous and allow the user to have an extended field of visions beyond that which could be seen through the frame of a pair of glasses. And it is precisely the discreet nature of the contact lens that will make it the ultimate wearable technology.
The holy grail, according to Legerton, would be a display contact lens that offers a “transparent display superimposed over or above the real world.” Unlike Google Glass, which offers this augmented reality but in a field of view limited by the frame of the glasses, the lens Legerton envisions could give you the equivalent of multiple full desktop displays at the same time.
Legerton is a director of Innovega, a startup that’s testing this concept of an augmented-reality contact lens. The company’s current version includes a contact lens but requires glasses to mount the display. He remains hopeful that the full-display contact lens sans eyewear will someday be available.
This may sound like sci-fi, but it would be incredibly useful for, say, tracking your heart rate during a run. He’s optimistic about the future of contact-lens technology: “Just because something is extremely difficult doesn’t make it impossible.”
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