Tech Giant Apple Hires Secret Team of Biomedical Engineers for Treating Diabetes

Published: Apr 19, 2017

Tech Giant Apple Hires Secret Team of Biomedical Engineers for Treating Diabetes April 13, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

In yet another example of tech companies getting involved in healthcare, Apple is quietly moving into the area of diabetes management. The company has reportedly hired a group of biomedical engineers, in what CNBC is calling “a super secret initiative” to develop sensors to monitor blood sugar levels.

Google/Alphabet has made similar strides. One of its subsidiaries, Verily, is developing technologies to disrupt healthcare and advance personalized medicine. One of those projects is a wearable contact lens that can read glucose levels in diabetic patients. A Jan. 16, 2014 Google blog post described it as “a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material.” It has teamed with Novartis for the project.

There is a great deal of skepticism among diabetes and technology experts on the viability of Verily’s concept, as there appears to be about Apple’s. Over the years, most have found it extremely difficult to reliably track the body’s blood sugar levels without drawing blood.

CNBC reports that Apple’s efforts have been going on for at least five years, and was originally envisioned by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Jobs put forth a concept of wearable devices, such as smartwatches, that could monitor oxygen levels, heart rate and blood glucose. So far they seem to do a reasonably good job of monitoring heart rate.

Apple’s team is located in a Palo Alto office several miles from corporate headquarters, and is believed to be led by Johny Srouji, the company’s senior vice president of hardware technologies. One of CNBC’s sources indicate its previous chief was Michael Hillman, who left Apple in 2015 to join Facebook’s Oculus as head of hardware. According to sources, as of about 12 months ago, approximately 30 people were in the group.

CNBC writes, “But speculation has been flying around since the company snapped up about a dozen biomedical experts from companies like Vital Connect, Masimo Corp , Sano, Medtronic , and C8 Medisensors. Some of these people joined the secretive team dedicated to glucose, sources said, while others are on Apple Watch team.”

There is plenty of interest on the part of tech firms in healthcare. According to Reuters, Setpoint Medical and EnteroMedics have had some early successes in bioelectronics for rheumatoid arthritis and appetite suppression. Other companies working in the area include Medtronic Plc, Proteus Digital Technology, Sanofi and Biogen .

One of Verily’s other projects include a smart contact lens that can automatically focuses for individuals with far-sightedness. At one point in 2015, Joe Jiminez, chief executive officer of Novartis, had said he thought the auto-focus lens would start clinical trials in 2016. In November 2016, however, he admitted that wasn’t going to happen, although he said the project was “progressing steadily.”

Of the blood sugar-level contact lens project, Novartis described it as a “very technical complex process.”

John Smith, a former executive with Johnson & Johnson and an expert on noninvasive glucose technologies, told STAT in 2016 that researchers have tried for years to measure glucose in sweat, saliva, and tears without success. None of them, he said, could duplicate accurate blood-glucose levels. He referred to those efforts as “faith-based science.”

Certainly there would be an enormous market for any noninvasive device that could accurately measure blood sugar levels, which is likely why Apple is joining the fray. What remains to be seen is if it’s just throwing money away.

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