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Google Steps Up Its Fight Against Diabetes

Google's focus on diabetes technology is getting clearer as it unveils a growing number of collaborations with companies specializing in treating the disease.

Brian Buntz

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First Google announced that it had developed a glucose-sensing contact lens, which was licensed to Alcon. After that, Google announced a partnership with DexCom. And now, the company is announcing a collaboration with Sanofi, the pharma giant also active in the medical device market.  

It's only been about three weeks since Google announced that the birth of its new holding company, Alphabet, which will possibly enable more nimble management of its new life science division. But this year, the company already had been expanding its life science business even before the Alphabet announcement, having hired immunologists, neurologists, and nanoparticle engineers.

Google believes that its own research and its collaboration with Sanofi will eventually further type-1 diabetics' ability to control their blood sugar. Nearly half of diabetics miss their target blood sugar levels, the company states in a press release.

And Google thinks its technology--including sensors, wearables, analytic tools can help.

That concept makes sense to Chris Snider, a type-1 diabetic who serves on the executive board of the Stanford Medicine X conference. "The way I see it, Google is synonymous with 'data.' And proper diabetes management includes a focus on data -- blood glucose values, nutrition, exercise quality, and duration," he says. "And considering they've already announced they are working on a glucose sensing contact lens, this feels like a bigger, more official announcement that they have a stake in the health of the world."

Google's diabetes project also aligns with the company's pre-Alphabet-era moonshot projects that include everything from developing a self-driving car to its goal of combatting aging with its Calico division. "If whatever they work on is successful, data-based results always speak volumes to other groups, whether they be patient advocates, pharma, or whoever is paying attention," Snider says. "I'm sure one of their goals is a headline that reads more or less like: 'Thanks to Google's awesome diabetes thing, the A1c in this population was reduced 10%, and x, y, and z complications were reduced."

In a statement, Google hints its thought process is for treating the chronic condition: "In the labs at Google[x], we've developed sensors and digital tools that we think could accelerate this progress, including our smart contact lens project with Alcon, our cardiac and activity sensor, and continuous glucose monitor partnership with Dexcom. And that's why diabetes is the first disease we're focusing on as we become an independent company."

There have been a wave of recent diabetes technology breakthroughs that are beginning to blur the line between the consumer technology and medical device fields. This could potentially enable Google to better tap its expertise in data management. "All of my diabetes devices charge via USB, and upload to various data aggregation platforms, some of them Web and cloud based," Snider says. "Google's other diabetes partner, Dexcom, just announced their G5 sensor, which transmits from the person with diabetes directly to a compatible mobile phone and then to the cloud for others (with permission and access) to monitor remotely," he adds. "As a technology company at heart, it makes sense for Google to try to improve those services as more and more data is collected and shared through FDA approved (Dexcom) and FDA permissible (Nightscout) means."

Another factor is that the roster of patients with diabetes is quickly exploding. A 2010 CDC report found that half of the people in the U.S. would be at risk for either diabetes or prediabetes by 2020. "From a pure business perspective, that's a lot of opportunity," Snider says.

Diabetes is important for Sanofi, too. Roughly 20% of its revenue comes from its diabetes treatments.

Google says in its statement that it could work with Sanofi to develop technologies that could, for instance, help doctors understand why a patient's blood sugar is tracking high for several days in a row, or could offer concrete information about how effective a particular therapy is.

For all of the promise, Snider is concerned that only a minority of diabetics will ultimately have access to such next-gen technology. "My biggest concern is that their technological advancements, whatever they may be, will only be available to the 1% of the diabetes community," he says. "By 1%, I mean the plugged in, hardcore advocates, with insurance, that stay on top of these types of developments.

Snider concludes: "What I would like to see down the road is Google make a sincere effort to educate populations of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, reaching the communities that can benefit from prevention initiatives."

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M Philadelphia, October 7-8, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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