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By Tracking Sugar In Tears, Contact Lens Offers Hope For Diabetics

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By Tracking Sugar In Tears, Contact Lens Offers Hope For Diabetics


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. A California driver beat an unusual traffic charge yesterday, by employing a high-tech defense. She had been ticketed for driving with Google Glass, the eyeglasses that carry a tiny computer you can use for things like checking email. A police officer pulled her over for speeding and noticed she was wearing the special glasses.

INSKEEP: California forbids drivers from turning on video screens in the front of the car while driving, except for things like navigation. But the driver, among thousands of people chosen to test this product, argued that her glasses were not turned on. And the San Diego traffic court ruled that police had not proven otherwise.

MONTAGNE: Also yesterday, Google's research branch, Google X, unveiled and even smaller computer. This time it is on a contact lens. The soft lens contains a tiny flexible computer that monitors the glucose levels in tears. NPR's Steve Henn reports that if it works it could save diabetes patients thousands of pin pricks and blood tests.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Dr. John Buse is a professor of Medicine at North Carolina and chairs the National Diabetes Education program for the National Institute of Health. Although he just found out about Google's smart contact lens project a week ago, he's pretty excited about it.

DR. JOHN BUSE: I think the Google X device could be a huge game changer.

HENN: He says for years, diabetes researchers and practitioners have been looking less invasive ways to monitor blood glucose levels. Taylor Degroff was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a little kid.

JENNIFER SCHNEIDER: Taylor was two years old.

HENN: That's Taylor's Mom, Jennifer Schneider. How many finger sticks do you think Taylor has had in the course of her life?


HENN: Taylor's body makes no insulin on its own.

SCHNEIDER: I'm going to try to do the math. We check 10 times a day, on average.

HENN: Ten times a day, 365 days a year, for 11 years - that's more than 40,000 finger pricks. And one of the reasons her parents test so much is that a mistake - too much insulin - not enough sugar - can be fatal.

SCHNEIDER: It's hard. Every night we worry.

HENN: The family recently got a continuous glucose monitor that Taylor now wears on her thigh. It involves needles and a wire under Taylor's skin. It's expensive, but it monitors her blood sugar levels around the clock and will trigger an alarm when levels get too low. Jennifer Schnieder says it's made a big difference in their lives. What Google announced yesterday is that it's taken similar technology, miniaturized it, and put it inside a soft contact lens.

BRIAN OTIS: You know, at this point we have functional prototypes.

HENN: That's Brian Otis, the smart contact lens project manager at Google X. Can I try one on?

OTIS: We have devices that are ready to wear - unfortunately, you are not enrolled in one of our studies, but I wish you could.

HENN: And then, just to rub it in, Otis opens a contact lens case.

You are taking it out.

OTIS: I want to show you one of our prototypes.

HENN: It looks and feels like a normal contact lens - almost.

OTIS: There we go. A few things that you will notice...

HENN: There two gold lines - actually the antenna - rimming what would be the iris of the wearer. But to see computer inside this contact lens, you really need a microscope. So Otis brings one out.

OTIS: All of these components are thinner than a human hair. The square in the middle is the integrated circuit that contains tens of thousands of transistors.

HENN: That looks just like a single flake of glitter to the naked eye.

OTIS: And that connects directly to the glucose sensor next door.

HENN: Picture slim circuits that look like thin interlocking fingers.

OTIS: There is a pin hole in the contact lens that allows the tears to approach the sensor.

HENN: Now, no one knows if measuring glucose levels in tears will really work as a proxy for blood glucose levels in diabetics. There are years of research and tests ahead. And a smart contact lens aimed at helping diabetics may never make it to market - but nonetheless simply shrinking the electronics involved in this thing is remarkable. To do it, the team at Google X created integrated circuit - a full-fledged a computer chip capable of complex calculations and then built that onto a flexible piece of plastic that is the size single flake of glitter. Otis places one on my fingertip.

OTIS: Can you feel it?

HENN: No, I can't feel it at all. What would you say, three ridges in my fingerprint?

OTIS: Yeah, that's about right.

HENN: It's possible to imagine almost infinite uses for sensors and chips this small but Brian Otis says for now his team at Google X is focused on a single one - someday giving diabetics a less painful way to manage their disease. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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