Alcon, the eye care division of Novartis, will license Google’s “smart lens” technology for all ocular medical uses. These contact lenses include non-invasive sensors, microchips, and other miniaturized electronics. Novartis is focused on two potential applications: helping diabetics monitor glucose levels, and providing vision correction for patients with presbyopia.

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For example, a tiny glucose sensor and a wireless chip is embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material (see the figure). A tiny pinhole in the lens allows tear fluid from the surface of the eye to seep into the glucose sensor. Google’s prototypes can take a glucose reading from that fluid once every second. The chip then would transmit those readings to a smartphone or tablet, letting patients know when they need to eat or lower their glucose levels.

People with diabetes often need to wear continuous glucose monitors beneath their skin and prick their own fingers as much as 10 times a day for blood tests. Compliance with these safeguards is difficult and can lead to inconsistent application, putting patients in danger. An alternative, non-invasive method like the smart lens would ensure more consistent and less painful monitoring, resulting in better treatment and health.

The smart lens also could help people with presbyopia. As the eye ages, it gradually loses its ability to focus on close objects like smartphones and books as the natural crystalline lens thickens and loses flexibility. People over the age of 40 likely will experience presbyopia. The smart lens would restore the eye’s natural autofocus as an accommodative contact lens or an intraocular lens as part of refractive cataract treatment.

The technology was developed by Google[x], which Google calls its “secret lab” designed to tackle worldwide problems with radical solutions using breakthrough technology. The division also is developing self-driving cars, the wearable Glass technology, Project Loon for balloon-powered Internet access, and Makani Power’s airborne wind turbines.

Google and Novartis both are anticipating a huge market for the smart lens. According to Google[x], 382 million people around the world have diabetes, with more than 25 million in the United States. The disease also is the leading cause of kidney failure, non-traumatic lower limb amputations, and new cases of blindness. It was responsible for more than 5.1 million deaths in the U.S. in 2013 as well.

Worldwide, nearly 1.7 billion people experience vision issues due to presbyopia, rising to more than 2 billion by 2020, according to Alcon. There is no cure, though it can be detected by a complete eye exam performed by an eye care professional. Current solutions include multifocal and monovision contact lenses, corrective glasses, and refractive surgery such as LASIK.

“We are looking forward to working with Google to bring together their advanced technology and our extensive knowledge of biology to meet unmet medical needs,” said Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez. “This is a key step for us to go beyond the confines of traditional disease management, starting with the eye.”