There’s around 415 million people living with diabetes in the world and its crucial for them think about their eyes (more specifically, the health of their eyes).
Everyone should have routine comprehensive eye exams. However, diabetes patients are more at risk to complications like diabetic retinopathy – which if left untreated, can cause blindless.
Diabetic retinopathy happens when retinal blood vessels weaken. With diabetics, this usually happens because of their high blood glucose levels which thicken capillary walls and cause vascular damage.
Non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) is the early stage of the disease when symptoms are mild or non-existent. In NPDR, the blood vessels in the retina weaken. Tiny bulges in these blood vessels, called microaneurysms, then leak fluid into the retina.
Accumulation of fluid around the retina and abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye can increase intraocular pressure and cause stress to the optic nerve, which is what defines the disease glaucoma.
Diabetes and glaucoma have an intertwining relationship.
That’s because diabetics are twice as likely to develop glaucoma, and people with glaucoma are at higher risk of developing diabetes. I can back these claims up, don’t worry.
A study in Australia of more than 3,500 people found a significant association between diabetes and glaucoma, while another study of almost 5,000 people in the US found that open-angle glaucoma is more common in people with older-onset diabetes.
A separate study of more than 4,000 people in the Netherlands, which looked for signs of diabetes and glaucoma, found that newly diagnosed diabetes and high levels of blood glucose are linked to glaucoma.
With a link prevalent between these two diseases, you’d imagine that it’s possible to provide an all-encompassing treatment to help patients manage both diabetes and glaucoma. Enter the smart contact lens…
Smart contact lenses are a new breed of lens, still in development, that can do much more than improve vision.
Imagine wearing a contact lens that can zoom in, take photos and record video footage with the blink of an eye. Or (thinking about the problem we’re trying to solve), a lens that can help with conditions like glaucoma and monitor glucose levels for people with diabetes.
One of the first companies to branch out into smart lens technology was Microsoft. In 2011, the company collaborated on a research project with the University of Washington to design a contact lens with a sensor that was able to monitor the glucose levels of the person wearing it.
In 2014, Google unveiled a similar technology. However, its project was stopped in 2018 due to inconsistencies in the measurement of glucose levels found in tears.
These studies and multiple others that have tried to support diabetes patients with smart lenses have also faced challenges surrounding wearability. First off, they’re difficult to see through because the electrodes used are opaque. Then there’s comfort issues because of the firm plastic material used to create prototypes.
In 2017, we got a step closer to the smart lens because these issues were addressed in a study by the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST).
The South Korean research team solved these issues by developing a sensor based on transparent and flexible materials. Their new smart contact lens sensors use electrodes made of highly stretchable and transparent graphene sheets and metal nanowires.
Using this sensor, smart lenses could be possible and patients with diabetes and glaucoma may one day be able to self-monitor blood glucose levels and eye pressure with them.
While we’re not quite there yet, UNIST’s contributions certainly solved one piece of the puzzle. Research and development continues to progress in the smart contact lens space and I’m hoping to see this futuristic technology eventually become reality.
Smart lenses are our path to finding an all-in-one solution to help patients manage both diabetes and glaucoma. Let’s hope we see them sooner, rather than later.
If you'd like to offer feedback on this article or speak about your future in the ophthalmic or critical care space, please email me at Becky.Rowlands@medical-cm.com.
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