Novartis' (NYSE:NVS) Alcon eye-care division recently announced a new partnership to license Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) experimental "smart" contact lens. The lens, which could theoretically detect glucose levels via tears, was introduced seven months ago by Google X, the secretive facility behind ambitious projects like Google Glass, self-driving cars, and Wi-Fi hot air balloons.
Many people are skeptical about Google's smart lens. Steve Pacelli, Executive VP of Strategy and Corporate Development at glucose monitor maker DexCom (NASDAQ:DXCM), called the lens a "science project" during an interview at Mobihealthnews. Novartis' backing, however, has now given the idea a lot more credibility.
Why does Novartis need smart contacts?
Novartis has mentioned two possible uses for Google's smart lenses -- noninvasive glucose monitoring via tears and corrective vision needs.
For glucose monitoring, it would be another step toward needle-free diabetes care -- which also includes needle-free injectors and inhalable insulin. For corrective vision needs, Novartis believes that it can help patients with presbyopia -- an age-related condition where the eye fails to focus on nearby objects -- by helping the eye regain its ability to autofocus.
If approved, Google's smart contacts could fit in well with Alcon's wide array of surgical, pharmaceutical, and over-the-counter vision-care products. It could also complement Novartis' Lucentis, a treatment for diabetic macular edema (DME) -- a degenerative eye condition which can affect 10% of all diabetics.
Could smart contacts replace glucose monitors?
Novartis and Google's goal of continually monitoring glucose levels with smart contacts would help type 1 diabetics, who must check their glucose levels several times daily with pinpricks prior to insulin injections.
Medtronic (NYSE:MDT), DexCom, and other companies currently address this need with continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) that require the insertion of a thin sensor under the patient's skin. The sensor -- which must be replaced every seven to 10 days -- connects wirelessly to the CGM, setting off an alarm if glucose levels get too high or low.
Both Medtronic and DexCom are trying to turn CGMs into wearable "artificial pancreases" by connecting CGMs to automated insulin pumps. Medtronic's first generation artificial pancreas, the MiniMed 530G, was approved by the FDA last September. The MiniMed 530G continually injects insulin until blood-sugar levels hit a preset level, after which it shuts down for two hours. DexCom and Johnson & Johnson's Animas division have developed a competing device, the Vibe, which goes a step further by modifying insulin delivery according to blood sugar levels.
Google's smart lens could theoretically replace under-the-skin sensors in CGMs, making artificial pancreases even more convenient. But it might not work if a patient already needs to wear corrective lenses. Moreover, price and comfort issues might make it an impractical solution when compared to regular CGM sensors.
Looking beyond diabetes and vision care
Although Novartis only mentioned diabetes and vision care, continuous health monitoring through tears holds other possibilities as well.
In 2012, University of California Irvine scientists isolated a disease-fighting protein, known as lysozymes, in human tears to observe their bacteria-eating behavior. Detecting levels of lysozymes could possibly help diagnose eye diseases, while detecting unusual levels of other proteins could theoretically lead to the early detection of cancer.
Similar studies have been conducted in the Tear Science Lab in Bangalore, which is studying conditions like dry eye through tears. Dr. Rohit Shetty, the head of the lab, is also collaborating with doctors in Singapore to detect other underlying diseases from the proteins in tears.
Since human tears contain various lipids, proteins, mucins, electrolytes, and other molecules, Google's smart lens might eventually help doctors continually monitor patients to detect diseases early, especially if wireless connectivity to the cloud is added.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, Google's smart lens is just another piece of its mysterious health care puzzle, which also includes its biotech subsidiary Calico, Google Fit for personal fitness, Google Helpouts for telehealth, and Google Glass for hospitals.
A potential approval for Google's smart lens is still years away, but Novartis' backing could accelerate that process with more R&D support. The smart lens project also isn't as random as some believe -- the project's co-founder, Babak Parviz, had been working on the project since 2009 with Microsoft Research prior to joining Google. Google clearly believes that Parviz was onto something, and now Novartis does as well.
Therefore, Google's smart lens is one "moon shot" project that tech and health care investors should keep a close eye on.