By Ilene Wolff
In the future, contact lenses will do more than correct your vision or turn brown eyes blue.
So-called “smart lenses” are being developed that can give the wearer night vision without wearing bulky headgear; detect blood glucose levels; or automatically dispense eye medications. The Swiss company Sensimed makes a contact lens that can monitor the pressure inside the eyes of people with glaucoma, but it’s not yet available in the United States outside of clinical trials.
Sky’s-the-limit thinkers can even envision contact lenses that would detect the amount of a substance in tears, lacryglobin, which can indicate many types of cancer.
Here and now
But the future is here right now, with researchers at the University of Michigan College of Engineering taking a step toward night-vision contact lenses. Their technology has potential for soldiers who need to see in the dark, smartphone cameras that could snap images at night and vehicles that help drivers see better after the sun goes down.
These U-M visionaries are working with 2D graphene — a single layer of carbon atoms. Their development could make a contact lens with heat vision technology — for seeing at night — possible.
“We can make the entire design super-thin,” says U-M assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science Zhaohui Zhong in a press release. “It can be stacked on a contact lens or integrated with a cell phone.”
The medical industry is developing smart lenses, too — sometimes with unexpected partners.
Novartis’ eye care division, Alcon, started working with Google[x] — a team within Google to find solutions to some of the world’s big problems — to develop a smart lens with the potential to address eye conditions. Their smart lens technology involves contact lenses that are embedded with non-invasive sensors, microchips and other miniaturized electronics.
The drug maker’s collaboration with the Silicon Valley innovator is focused on measuring a diabetic person’s glucose levels via a smart lens connected wirelessly to a mobile device, and a contact or intraocular lens that would help people who can’t read or distinguish objects close up without glasses.
In addition to monitoring the eyes of people with diabetes, smart lenses can help with monitoring eye pressure in people with glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness.
While doctors can measure the pressure inside a person’s eyes, that measurement is just a snapshot in time, and the pressure can fluctuate throughout the day. But with Sensimed’s 24-hour, disposable silicone lenses, SENSIMED Triggerfish®, along with their microprocessor and antenna transmitting data to an external receiver, doctors get much more information. This can lead to better diagnoses and detect changes that may alter treatments.
While SENSIMED Triggerfish® isn’t yet commercially available in the United States, the company achieved a step in that direction when the American Medical Association in 2013 issued a code that lets healthcare providers report and bill for the device’s use.
“I believe it has the potential to radically change the way we think about glaucoma. In measuring changes in ocular volume over a 24-hour period, SENSIMED Triggerfish® provides information to the physician which has never previously been available,” says Sensimed CEO David Bailey.