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How Google and Novartis Might Revolutionize Contact Lenses

Google's founders may have recently downplayed the high tech giant's healthcare plans. But a new partnership with Novartis, announced Tuesday, shows that Google is pretty serious when it comes to one medical device technology: contact lenses.

When the news came out in January that Google planned to develop a contact lens that could help diabetics keep track of their blood glucose levels, company officials said they were looking for partners with expertise in bringing such products to market.

That seems to be exactly what Google has found in the Swiss multinational Novartis and its Alcon eye care division, which has agreed to in-license Google's "smart lens" technology for all ocular medical uses. Novartis' goal is to have a prototype ready for research and development reviews by early next year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Google Contact lens

Google's smart contact lens may include camera, glucose meter, or both (Courtesy Google Inc.)

The smart lens technology includes noninvasive sensors, microchips and other miniaturized electronics embedded within contact lenses, according to the companies' news release.

"By combining Alcon's leadership in eye care and expertise in contact lenses and intraocular lenses with Google's innovative 'smart lens' technology and groundbreaking speed in research, we aim to unlock a new frontier to jointly address the unmet medical needs of millions of eye care patients around the world," says Jeff George, division head of Alcon.

The deal between Google and Novartis should serve as an indication that contact lenses are a serious innovation platform for health sensors and more--and other device designers may want to consider whether they are missing out.

In announcing the partnership, the two companies already had an additional potential use for Google's smart lens tech: an autofocusing contact lens for people living with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses.

"This is a key step for us to go beyond the confines of traditional disease management, starting with the eye," said Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez.

A patent released earlier this year also shows Google embedding a tiny camera in a contact lens--a scenario that raises the question of whether Google Glass might eventually morph into Google Lens.

It is worth noting that Novartis' Alcon has already proved itself innovative with contact lenses, including the decade-plus work its engineers spent on developing the Dailies Total water gradient contact lenses.

The Dailies Total lenses boast more comfort through a "unique water-gradient material, which allows for a measurable change in water content throughout the lens," according to Alcon's website. The core of the lens features a highly breathable, silicone hydrogel material with a low water content of 33%--allowing more oxygen through the lens to promote healthy looking eyes--while the ultra-soft surface gel layer made up of more than 80% water, nearly the same as the surface of the eye.

The 80% water surface of the Dailies Total lens minimizes friction with the delicate tissues of the eye, according to Alcon's website. One has to wonder a surface with so much liquid might also aid, say, a Google sensor measuring glucose in tears.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MEDevice San Diego, September 10-11, 2014.

It is worth noting that Google and Novartis are not the only companies interested in contact lenses as a medtech innovation platform.

Contact lens  technology was on display in January at the International CES, where Bellevue, WA-based Innovega showed off its iOptik platform that combines a contract lens paired with a glass-pointed projector.

Other advances include telescopic contact lenses, which NewScientist reports are being developed by researchers in Switzerland and California.

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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