Could Your Contact Lenses Do More Than Just Correct Your Vision?

Posted on: 31 January 2016

If you're one of the 30 million contact lens wearers in the U.S., you may not pay much attention to your lenses. You wear them, you clean them, you replace them as necessary, and you get regular checkups from your eye doctor to make sure your eyes are staying healthy while wearing them.

But some researchers think that your contact lenses could be much more than that. In fact, scientists announced in January that they were working on a contact lens for people with diabetes. Their invention: a lens that measures the amount of glucose in the body's tears and lets the wearer know in real time.

Diabetes sufferers must keep a close eye on their blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels, and many must prick themselves daily -- or even more often -- to get blood that can be tested or must use a continuous glucose monitor that is placed under the skin and replaced every few days. Tears can reflect an accurate blood glucose level, but they are hard to collect and test. The contact lens is a way of testing glucose levels in tears, which is much less invasive than drawing blood.

How does it work?

The lens has tiny wireless chips and glucose sensors embedded between two layers of lens material. A very small hole lets tear fluid collect and run into the sensor to be measured. A wireless antenna that is thinner than a human hair is also embedded in the contact; this sends information to a wireless handheld device that the diabetes patient carries. This device also generates power for the sensor to use in its analysis. A new reading is generated as often as once per second.

The new lens must pass more rigorous testing to ensure that it can work for users who have varying amounts of tears and for users in different types of environmental conditions, like wind or cold temperatures. It has not yet undergone testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which must approve all new medical devices.

What else could a contact lens conceivably do?

Some scientists anticipate using contacts to do things like check body temperature, analyze blood alcohol levels and test for allergens in the immediate area. Another, possibly more immediate product would incorporate an autofocus feature to contact lenses that could, for example, help those who have difficulty seeing to read or do close-up work.

New contact lenses that autofocus and perform health checks are not going to be available for immediate sale to consumers. Testing and bringing the lenses to market will likely take at least 5 years. Talk to an eye doctor (like those at The Eye Center) for more information about contact lens options.