What else can a contact lens do?

What else can a contact lens do?

What else can a contact lens do?

Besides health tracking, contact lens technology under development could enable from cancer detection and drug delivery to reality augmentation and night vision. Our eyes offer unique opportunities for both health monitoring and enhancement.

“Now is the time to put a little computer and a lot of miniaturised technologies in the contact lens,” says Franck Leveiller, head of research and development in the Novartis eye care division.

One of the Novartis-Google prototype lenses contains a device about the size of a speck of glitter that measures glucose in tears. A wireless antenna then transmits the measurements to an external device. It’s designed to ease the burden of diabetics who otherwise have to prick their fingers to test their blood sugar levels.

“I have many patients that are managing diabetes, and they described it as having a part-time job. It’s so arduous to monitor,” says Thomas Quinn, who is head of the American Optometric Association’s contact lens and cornea section.

Glucose isn’t the only thing that can be measured from tears rather than a blood sample, says Quinn. Tears also contain a chemical called lacryglobin that serves as a biomarker for breast, colon, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancers.

Monitoring lacryglobin levels could be particularly useful for cancer patients who are in remission, Quinn says. He also believes that drug delivery may be another use for future contact lenses. If a lens could dispense medication slowly over long periods of time, it would be better for patients than the short, concentrated doses provided by eye drops, he says. Such a lens is not easy to make, though.

New avenues

The auto focusing lens is in an earlier stage of development, but the goal is for it to adjust its shape depending on where the eye is looking, which would be especially helpful for people who need reading glasses.

A current prototype of the lens uses photodiodes to detect light hitting the eye and determine whether the eye is directed downward.

Google and Novartis are far from the only ones interesting in upgrading the contact lens with such new capabilities.

In Sweden, a company called Sensimed is working on a contact lens that measures the interocular pressure that results from the liquid buildup in the eyes of glaucoma patients.

And researchers at the University of Michigan are using graphene to make infrared-sensitive contact lenses — the vision, as it were, is that these might one day provide some form of night vision without the bulky headgear.

A Seattle-based company, Innovega, meanwhile, has developed a contact lens with a small area that filters specific bands of red, green, and blue light, giving users the ability to focus on a very small, high resolution display less than an inch away from their eyes without interfering with normal vision.

That makes tiny displays attached to glasses look more like IMAX movie screens, says the company’s CEO, Steve Willey. Together, the lens and display are called iOptik.

Plenty of challenges still remain before we’re all walking around with glucose-monitoring, cancer-detecting, drug-delivering super night vision. Some prototypes out there are unusually thick, Quinn says, and some use traditional, rigid electronics where clear, flexible alternatives would be preferable. And, of course, all will have to pass regulatory approval to show they are safe and effective.