Researchers Are Developing Contact Lenses that Can Detect Disease


Simply applying a set of bio-sensing contact lenses could soon give you a snapshot of your personal health, according to an exciting new study.

Researchers from Oregon State University have developed transparent, sensor-laden contact lenses that they believe can replace current diagnostic testing methods in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Jack Forkey/Oregon State University via American Chemical Society

The lenses are designed to detect blood glucose levels to help diabetic patients monitor their disease, but the potential for screening doesn’t stop there. The lenses could aid in drug tracking and even cancer protection, note the researchers who presented their findings on April 4th at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

“These biosensors probably won’t put blood labs out of business,” Dr. Gregory S. Herman, professor of Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University, told “But I think that we can do a lot of diagnostics using information that can be extracted from tear drops in the eye.”

The innovative nanotechnology in the contact lenses uses a semiconductor composed of indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) that’s used in smartphones and other electronics to create a higher resolution display. Herman developed that technology with two other colleagues before he switched gears to create ocular devices.

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With bio-sensing contact lenses that can assess blood glucose levels, the researchers believe that they can improve health outcomes by replacing older, painful methods of diabetes monitoring.

When the researchers first published their work in the journal Nanoscale, they reported that the sensors were fully operational in measuring specific disease pathways.

“We have fully transparent sensors that are working,” said Herman. “What we want to do next is fully develop the communication aspect, and we want to use the entire contact lens as real estate for sensing and communications electronics.”

In a single, one-millimeter square segment of the contact lens, the researchers can pack more than 2,500 bio-sensors, each able to detect a distinct bodily function. Such scaling should boost the diagnostic power of the advanced devices.

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“We can integrate an array of sensors into the lens and also test for other things: stress hormones, uric acid, pressure sensing for glaucoma, and things like that,” said Herman. “We can monitor many compounds in tears – and since the sensor is transparent, it doesn’t obstruct vision; more real estate is available for sensing on the contact lens.”

To date, the researchers have used the sensor system in catheters to successfully measure levels of uric acid, which can indicate kidney function. When it comes to people with diabetes, the study authors believe the new technology offers a range of possibility for augmenting treatment and overall health outcomes.

“A lot of type 1 diabetics don’t wear a pump,” Herman said. “Many are still managing with blood droplets on glucose strips, then using self-injection. Even with the contact lens, someone could still manage their diabetes with self-injection. The sensor could communicate with your phone to warn you if your glucose was high or low.”

The contact lenses are likely a year away from moving ahead to live studies, report the authors.