For decades, medical technology firms have searched for ways to let diabetics check blood sugar easily, with scant success. Now, the world’s largest mobile technology firms are getting in on the act.
Apple Inc, Samsung Electronics Co and Google Inc, searching for applications that could turn nascent wearable technology like smartwatches and bracelets from curiosities into must-have items, have all set their sites on monitoring blood sugar, several people familiar with the plans say.
These firms are variously hiring medical scientists and engineers, asking US regulators about oversight and developing glucose-measuring features in future wearable devices, the sources said.
The first round of technology may be limited, but eventually the companies could compete in a global blood-sugar tracking market worth more than US$12 billion by 2017, according to research firm GlobalData.
Diabetes afflicts 29 million Americans and costs the economy about US$245 billion in 2012, a 41 percent rise in five years. Many diabetics prick their fingers as much as 10 times daily to check levels of a type of sugar called glucose.
Non-invasive technology could take many forms. Electricity or ultrasound could pull glucose through the skin for measurement, for instance, or a light could be shined through the skin so that a spectroscope could measure for indications of glucose.
“All the biggies want glucose on their phone,” said John Smith, former chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson’s LifeScan, which makes blood glucose monitoring supplies. “Get it right, and there’s an enormous payoff.”
Google has been public about some of its plans: It has developed a “smart” contact lens that measures glucose. In a blog post detailing plans for its smart contact lens, Google described an LED system that could warn of high or low blood sugar by flashing tiny lights.
It has recently said it is looking for partners to bring the lens to market.
The device, which uses tiny chips and sensors that resemble bits of glitter to measure glucose levels in tears, is expected to be years away from commercial development, and skeptics wonder if it will ever be ready.
Previous attempts at accurate non-invasive measurement have been foiled by body movement, and fluctuations in hydration and temperature. Tears also have lower concentrations of glucose, which are harder to track.
However, the Life Sciences team in charge of the lens and other related research is housed at the Google X facility, where it works on major breakthroughs such as the self-driving car, a former employee who requested anonymity said.
Apple’s efforts center on its iWatch, which is on track to ship in October, three sources at leading supply chain firms said.
It is not clear whether the initial release will incorporate glucose-tracking sensors.
Still, Apple has poached executives and bio-sensor engineers from such medical technology firms as Masimo Corp, Vital Connect and the now-defunct glucose monitoring startup C8 Medisensors.
Meanwhile, Samsung was among the first tech companies to produce a smartwatch, which failed to catch on widely. It has since introduced a platform for mobile health, called Simband, which could be used on smart wrist bands and other mobile devices.
Samsung is looking for partners and will allow developers to try out different sensors and software.