Health

A Sharp Eye on Autofocus Technology

New advances could help manage everything from vision to diabetes

Diabetes patients regularly use needles for blood sugar tests. Now, Google may make finger-pricking a thing of the past in the next few years.

The sector of the company known as Verily develops such cutting-edge technology as Google Glass and the self-driving car.

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Now it has partnered with Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis to develop a smart contact lens capable of testing eye fluids for sugar levels. Sensors on the lens will track sugar levels and send an alert to a mobile device if the levels are out of balance.

Tears contain proportional amounts of glucose to blood — so a high reading in tears also indicates a high level in the blood.

This project has many pieces, some of which are already “in early clinical development, and the projects are progressing steadily,” according to a Novartis spokesperson. The company had hoped to begin clinical trials of the lens this year, but had to scale back for undisclosed reasons. The specific progress and timeline for clinical trials of the actual lens remain confidential, the spokesperson said.

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“Novartis aims to enhance the ways in which diseases are mapped within the body and ultimately prevented,” she told LifeZette. “Verily has a complementary aim to develop tools that empower people to be more engaged in their health. We partnered with Verily to develop new solutions to complex global health care problems specific to the eye.”

She also said, “Verily’s smart lens technology has the potential to transform eye care and further enhance our pipeline and global leadership in the contact lens and intraocular lens space.”

The smart lens will have autofocusing capabilities, which means sensors will analyze the muscle contractions in the eye and adjust the focus of the lens accordingly. It’s similar to how cameras can calculate what the user wants to focus on. This could mean improved vision for the nearly 11 million far-sighted patients in the U.S. with presbyopia, a common condition that hardens the lens with age.

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Patients deal with presbyopia through a number of ways, mostly by purchasing multiple numbers of reading glasses that often get lost, said Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, an eye surgeon at the Boxer Wachler Vision Institute in Beverly Hills, California. He pointed out that many of his patients feel embarrassed if they forget their glasses and can’t read the labels at the grocery store, for example.

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Presbyopia can also cause serious accidents. “If someone is wearing bifocals and climbing the stairs, it’s common for the person to look down through the magnified portion of the lens and to have the stairs distorted, which can cause falls,” Dr. Boxer Wachler said.

Whether or not this technology will be affordable for the average patient is another matter. The Novartis spokesperson said it’s too early to speculate on cost, but given the money already spent developing this technology, the lenses won’t come cheap.

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