Scitech  From concept to commercialization

LED contact lenses offer a new reality for people with glaucoma and diabetes

While medical innovation may have the potential to move us into a world where cyborg implants are the norm, contact lenses that provide more than better vision may still be a distant reality.

Recently, Babak Parviz of the University of Washington in Seattle created contact lenses containing light emitting devices (LEDs).

Parviz’s existing prototype can be used to monitor ocular pressure changes caused by glaucoma, and also to monitor glucose levels in people with diabetes. Glucose level readings are taken from tear  fluid by micro-electrodes, and the LED array then sends the continuous information wirelessly to a portable device.

While Parviz’s motivating philosophy focuses on the medical possibilities of LED contacts, research to merge LEDs with other microelectronics is currently underway. Eventually, this could mean creating wearable graphic displays. The images would appear when the lenses are switched on, and when turned off, they would allow for normal, unobstructed vision.

Developed in 2008, this technology is still relatively new and remains under trial to determine its potential risks. Though the lenses represent major progress, it may be several years before the technology becomes commercially available.

While discussing the commercial aspects of the technology, Parviz stressed the need for continued, rigorous testing. “[The contact lenses are] definitely in trial…right now, we’re doing tests on animals and everything has been okay. All the animals have been safe, and at some point this has to transition to human trials, to make sure that there are no harmful side effects or any sort of unpredicted effects…before a transition to the market.”

In contrast to Parviz’s reluctance to commercialize LED contacts just yet, Sensimed, a Swiss company, has already launched contact lenses with a similar technology. Combining medical research with microelectronics, the lenses monitor ocular pressure fluctuations in people who have – or are at risk for – glaucoma. But by focusing on mass-production and global retail, Sensimed’s philosophy seems largely profit-driven.

Beyond the medical aspects of LED contacts, there are huge opportunities for commercializing any technology that has the potential to realize the human-machine hybrid so frequently encountered in science-fiction. Parviz recognizes this commercial interest, which could only amplify over the years. “The reception for LED contact lenses has been very positive. There has been tremendous interest…for making displays in one form or the other…we’ve made clear over the past period of time that it takes time to get these out the door, to make sure that they’re functional, [that] they’re safe. It takes time,” he said.

Much of the time required for such a project is due to the bureaucratic red tape involved, and the sporadic nature of technological progress.  The process, Parviz said, depends on “how technology rolls, and getting permission for medical tests and  [Food and Drug Administration] approvals.”

However, delays are also found within the research process itself, since increasing the level of sophistication of the prototype is a challenge that must still be tackled. “We can make very simple displays right now, which maybe have one or a handful of light sources that can show people very basic information,” Parviz said.

While researchers have included blue and red pixels into the lenses, green pixels have yet to be incorporated – only then will full-colour displays become a definite possibility. “High resolution, colour display is many years away, at least…none of these things can show up in the market in the next year or so,” Parviz added.

Although colour displays may be a distant reality, the medical aspects of LED contacts are revolutionary for people with – and at risk for – diabetes or glaucoma. Being able to monitor glucose levels and ocular pressure on the go is undoubtedly a life-changing innovation.

However, since it is a relatively new technology, there is a profound need for extensive testing (and human trials) before the product is widely commercialized. Although Sensimed seems to lack any reluctance to sell these lenses, it appears far more pragmatic to follow Parviz’s philosophy – after all, he is the accredited creator of the technology.