A small, secret team of biomedical engineers at Apple is said to be working on a "holy grail" for diabetics: wearable sensors that could continuously monitor a person's blood sugar levels without the need for pin-prick testing.
Based in a small facility in Palo Alto, Calif., the Apple project "has been conducting feasibility trials at clinical sites across the Bay Area," CNBC reported yesterday, citing information from "three people familiar with the matter."
According to the report, Apple has been working for at least five years to develop such biomedical devices. The program was reportedly inspired by Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. Apple did not respond to our request for comment on the report.
No Breakthrough Product Yet
A chronic disease in which the body cannot produce or use insulin properly, diabetes currently affects more than 420 million people around the world, according to the World Health Organization. The disease causes a wide range of health complications, including blindness, heart attacks, and stroke, and is blamed for millions of premature deaths every year.
Diabetes can often be controlled through exercise, diet, medication and insulin injections, but monitoring the condition can require patients to regularly draw a small amount of blood for testing.
"Pricking a finger multiple times a day to monitor their blood glucose levels often proves overwhelming for patients with diabetes," the JAMA Network reported in a July journal article. "Many simply won't follow their physician's recommendation to test so frequently, making it harder to manage their condition."
Over the years, such difficulties have led to numerous and well-funded efforts to develop an effective, easy and non-invasive way to monitor blood sugar levels. However, no such breakthrough product has yet to hit the market.
Active Health Tech Market
According to the CNBC report, until 2015, Apple's glucose monitoring project had been led by Michael Hillman, who is now the head of hardware at Facebook's virtual reality firm, Oculus. Apple's engineering team is believed to include a number of experts hired away from biomedical companies such as C8 Medisensors, Medtronic, and Vital Connect.
One of CNBC's unnamed sources said Apple's goal is to find a way to measure blood sugar using light-based sensors on the skin. The sensors could be incorporated into devices, such as the Apple Watch, to provide diabetic wearers with continuous blood monitoring.
Many companies are working to develop new sensors and other technologies for the health industry. Former Apple platform architect Bob Messerschmidt, for example, left the company in 2013 to start Cor, which plans to produce a home blood-testing device for monitoring a wide variety of health indicators, including glucose and cholesterol. In an interview with Fast Company last year, Messerschmidt criticized Apple for being extremely secretive about its projects.
Microsoft is working with a number of health organizations to make use of its holographic computing device, the HoloLens. For instance, HoloLens could be used to create simulated environments for nurses to safely, but realistically train for disaster response. And last year, Google/Alphabet's Verily Life Sciences began working with the pharmaceutical company GSK on a joint project to develop bioelectronic medicines.
The biomedical tech industry has also had some spectacular failures, including Theranos, a U.S. blood-test technology startup that raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital before questions about the effectiveness of its products led to regulatory and criminal investigations. The company has since laid off a large portion of its workforce and closed its lab facilities.