While many in the diabetes community probably saw this coming from the start, it's now official: The former Google Life Sciences now renamed Verily has pulled the plug on developing its glucose-sensing contact lenses after almost five years of studying that concept.
Yep, the idea of being able to get BG readings right from your eyes is now on the scrapheap of would-be treatments, due to this research not leading to anything constructive on the product front.
When Google first announced the project back in early 2014, it naturally created quite the buzz -- after all, the tech powerhouse brought a huge level of street cred. Putting their name in the ring coaxed cautious optimism from many folks who were otherwise sure the concept was unrealistic (including our team).
Despite the initial excitement from the medtech world, this glucose-sensing SmartLens project never really took off and stayed largely in the conceptual R&D phase as Verily worked with Alcon, the eye care division of Novartis. Other researchers have dabbled in their own related projects since then, but the word in the diabetes tech space was that the SmartLens project was pretty much dead in the water. That's never been official, until now.
'Tear Glucose and Blood Glucose Don't Correlate'
On Nov. 16, this statement came from Verily confirming what many had suspected and offered a level of transparency not often seen when D-tech or research is shelved:
"Our clinical work on the glucose-sensing lens demonstrated that there was insufficient consistency in our measurements of the correlation between tear glucose and blood glucose concentrations to support the requirements of a medical device. In part, this was associated with the challenges of obtaining reliable tear glucose readings in the complex on-eye environment. For example, we found that interference from biomolecules in tears resulted in challenges in obtaining accurate glucose readings from the small quantities of glucose in the tear film. In addition, our clinical studies have demonstrated challenges in achieving the steady state conditions necessary for reliable tear glucose readings.
We are at a point where we have decided, together with Alcon, to put the glucose-sensing lens work on hold, while continuing to focus on the smart accommodating contact lens and smart intraocular lens projects."
That statement from Verily's Chief Technology Officer Dr. Brian Otis went on to note how the company will continue working on eye-related projects beyond glucose sensing and diabetes. In particular, he explained how the SmartLens project has evolved into other electronics platforms that can sense or transmit data on the eye -- integrating wireless electronics and mini sensors into a special contact lens that could be used for treating age-related farsightedness as well as a smart inner-eye lens for improving sight following cataract surgery.
Importantly, Verily is continuing its other exciting diabetes-related work:
- Developing a mini CGM sensor with Dexcom that it intends to be the world's smallest CGM sensor at only 1MM. Images leaked over the years have shown the eventual product, likely a second-generation or beyond, may be smaller than the size of an M&M. A first-gen prototype is still expected at some point in late 2019, last we've heard.
- Its collaboration with Sanofi to build a connected insulin pump and smart insulin pens.
- The Onduo joint venture, weaving data analytics and diabetes coaching into the care paradigm for PWDs with type 2; the mobile app platform launched early in 2018 and the company is working with several partners within the D-community.
- Verily's Study Watch designed to collect clinical trial data using a wristband wearable with built-in sensors.
While it's a bummer to hear about the glucose-sensing contact lenses idea being scrapped, it's not overly surprising. But should this be a cautionary tale for others seeking similar solutions?
Still Chasing the Non-Invasive Dream
History dictates that this latest news won't deter researchers from moving ahead with new concepts for glucose-sensing methods that do not penetrate the skin, i.e. "non-invasive" devices. In fact, the so-called Non-Invasive Dream has been a staple in the diabetes tech world for decades now.
We refer you all back to the book "The Pursuit of Non-Invasive Glucose: Hunt for the Deceitful Turkey," by former Lifescan exec John Smith, who retired in 1998 and has been consulting and observing non-invasive diabetes tech since. That book is his treatise on how far-fetched and unrealistic some of these ideas are and why the science of non-invasive glucose sensing is so darn difficult.
Still, ever hopeful scientists push forward -- even on glucose-sensors in the eye, despite knowledge that Google-Verily couldn't pull it off.
Just last month (October 2018), a small startup company in the Netherlands known as Noviosense published a very small study about its inner-eye glucose sensing technology. Unlike what Verily had been exploring, the Noviosense concept doesn't put a contact lens or mini sensor into the eye to measure tears; instead, a 2-centimeter flexible, spring-shaped coil drops in behind the lower eyelid in order to access a more reliable flow of tears for truer glucose readings.
In Noviosense’s final design, the device would wirelessly transmit glucose data to a smartphone when it's held near the eye, or to a pair of eyeglasses for more continuous readings. The startup's CEO says in published reports that the tiny coil wouldn't pop out even when you rub your eye. In early clinical studies, Noviosense saw 95% accuracy when comparing to traditional readings. While the tear data wasn’t as good as blood, the data showed it was about the same as interstitial fluid, from which CGMs read glucose data.
And in January 2018, South Korean researchers published scientific study data on their own version of a glucose-sensing contact lens: a stretchable lens that could monitor glucose without distorting vision. This would be a mechanical contact lens with a built-in LED light that stays on when the user’s glucose levels are normal, and turns off when levels move out of the normal range. The plan is to link the device to a software app that will also display glucose readings.
Hmmm... ((insert skeptical eye roll))
Letting Go, Without Giving Up
In his latest 2018 edition of the Deceitful Turkey book, Smith offers his breakdown of the many non-invasive projects and writes: "This [book] may be the final update this subject needs. Many participants and observers are beginning to feel this is an idea whose time never came and which may soon be gone without ever seeing success.”
Meanwhile, from the patient community, advocate Doug Boss, a longtime type 1 in Texas, also shared this sobering thought online:
"When you read on the Internet about some new glucose technology that will be bloodless and painless... Remember that the big brains and bottomless pockets of Google gave up on this. This is the last in a LONG line of newsworthy announcements of some new non-invasive blood glucose technology that will (supposedly) revolutionize treatment. They have been trying to solve that issue for decades. The amount of R&D chasing that pot of cash is staggering. Yet, as we close in on the 100-year anniversary of the discovery and refining of insulin, we are still struggling with the basics."
And yet we'd never want to squelch the spirit of innovation that has brought so many advances to society and medicine.
So thank you for your efforts on this front, Verily, even if it didn't work out in the end. It has shaped some other meaningful research endeavors beyond just diabetes. And we continue to hold out hope for more practical next-gen D-tech coming soon.