Post-Google, what does the glucose-sensing contact lens landscape look like?

Medella pivots, Dutch company NovioSense's eyelid sensor shows promise, other efforts are academic.
By Jonah Comstock
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NovioSense's artist conception of its device in use.

NovioSense's artist conception of its device in use.

Last week, Alphabet subsidiary Verily Life Sciences announced the end, at least for the foreseeable future, of its glucose-sensing contact lens collaboration with Novartis.

Verily CTO Brian Otis gave his thoughts in a blog post at the time, stressing the learnings the company got from the project. In a recent interview with MobiHealthNews, Novartis Global Head of Digital Development Jacob LaPorte echoed those sentiments.

"Novartis has elected to take a leadership position in the community. We’ve been very vocal about this and we want to drive this forward with the rest of the community. But in taking a leadership position, there are some things you’re going to have to experiment with. And like all science, not all experiments are going to pay out the way you intended," he said. 

While he still hopes the project could be brought back in the far future, for Novartis it stopped looking like it would be a way to help real patients any time soon — so they pulled the plug.

"The way you should look at the decisions we’re making is we always want to be judicious about where we’re making investments, so that we’re confident that the investments that we’re making are going to pay the highest return on human health in a positive way," he said. "To specifically address the Verily Life Sciences project, I think that was an ambitious project where we learned a lot from doing that. There was a decision made that that may not be the best focus right now, based on the learnings that we’ve had, to actually bring something forward to impact human health, and we have to constantly look at this portfolio of opportunities and rebalance."

The rest of the field

Verily and Novartis aren't the only ones to give up on glucose-sensing contact lenses. After the publication of our last story, MobiHealthNews reached out to Medella CEO Harry Gandhi, who said that his company quietly pivoted out of that space a year ago.

"We're re-purposing the tech to something a bit more worthwhile," he said in a LinkedIn message. "Going to be coming out with an update soon."

As far as we know, that doesn't leave anyone working on commercial product that is a glucose-sensing contact lens. At least two groups of researchers, both of whom published as recently as January, are working on the tech: a team in South Korea and a joint American-Saudi Arabian team. These academic projects are worth keeping an eye on, but both seem far away from commercialization.

And then there's NovioSense, a Dutch company that's pursuing tear-based glucose sensing, just without the contact lens. Instead, the company is developing a small sensor worn inside the lower eyelid. CEO Dr. Christoper Wilson reached out to MobiHealthNews after our last story to say that his company has now completed its first human trial, published with six patients. Another study, in progress, will look at 24 patients.

NovioSense's device performed comparably to both the Dexcom G4 and the Abbott Freestyle Libre in the six-patient trial. So if patients don't mind eschewing the contact lens for an eyelid-worn sensor, there may be some hope of noninvasive glucose sensing coming soon after all.