Here at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute, we’ve always got our eyes peeled for developments in the world of ocular science –so we’ve been reviewing the spate of recent press releases around ‘smart’ contact lenses with interest. Could smart contact lenses really turn out to be the next big thing in preventative medicine? And why contact lenses, of all things?
What Are “Smart” Contact Lenses?
First and foremost, it’s important that we distinguish which type of ‘smart lenses’ we’re talking about. Sony is currently working on creating contact lenses which contain cameras and video equipment, allowing you to capture the world around you with the blink of an eye. Samsung is attempting to take the technology even further, filing a patent last year for augmented reality lenses. However, at the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute, we’re most interested in smart lenses of the kind Google is working towards – which will measure the glucose content in your tears, allowing diabetics to forgo the painful and invasive pin-prick blood tests which many still require to check their insulin levels.
Diabetes is quickly becoming a global epidemic. In 2014, an estimated 422 million adults were diabetes sufferers, compared with 108 million in 1980. And India has been labelled the ‘diabetes capital of the world’, with as many as 50 million sufferers of type-2 diabetes alone. With 80% of diabetes-related deaths occurring in poor and middling countries according to the same report, this is a serious cause for concern.
And diabetes doesn’t just threaten health – it’s a condition that dramatically impacts the quality of life of its sufferers. Diabetes complications can cause all manner of eye problems, as well as diabetic retinopathy, which is the leading cause of blindness amongst working age people in the West. People with diabetes are also 2-5 times more likely to develop cataracts. And as you’ll know from following the Tej Kohli blog, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide.
So could smart lenses help to prevent diabetic retinopathy and control other symptoms of diabetes? Maybe. But the technology could be a while in the making. Google’s smart lenses were first announced in 2014, but their partner, international drug company Novartis, defaulted on the goal of starting human trials of their lenses by 2016, commenting that ‘this is a very technically complex process and both sides are learning as we go along.’ Indeed, it is such a technically complex and intricate product that you could be forgiven for wondering if it’s a bit of a vanity project – and if the funding might be better funneled into finding a cheaper, more easily distributed alternative instead.
After all, as exciting as such innovations may seem, they’re unlikely to reach the people who could most benefit from them. We’ll certainly be keeping an eye (no pun intended) on Google’s breakthrough project over the following years, but in the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we do best – working tirelessly to restore the sight of sufferers in India’s poorest rural communities.