For decades, medical technology firms have searched for ways to let diabetics check blood sugar easily, with scant success. Now, the world's largest mobile technology firms are getting in on the act.
Apple Inc, Samsung Electronics Co and Google Inc, searching for applications that could turn nascent wearable technology like smartwatches and bracelets from curiosities into must-have items, have all set their sites on monitoring blood sugar, several people familiar with the plans say.
These firms are variously hiring medical scientists and engineers, asking U.S. regulators about oversight and developing glucose-measuring features in future wearable devices, the sources said.
The first round of technology may be limited, but eventually the companies could compete in a global blood-sugar tracking market worth over $12 billion by 2017, according to research firm GlobalData.
Diabetes afflicts 29 million Americans and costs the economy some $245 billion in 2012, a 41 percent rise in five years. Many diabetics prick their fingers as much as 10 times daily in order to check levels of a type of sugar called glucose.
Non-invasive technology could take many forms. Electricity or ultrasound could pull glucose through the skin for measurement, for instance, or a light could be shined through the skin so that a spectroscope could measure for indications of glucose.
"All the biggies want glucose on their phone," said John Smith, former chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson's LifeScan, which makes blood glucose monitoring supplies. "Get it right, and there's an enormous payoff."
Apple, Google and Samsung declined to comment, but Courtney Lias, director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's chemistry and toxicology devices division, told Reuters a marriage between mobile devices and glucose-sensing is "made in heaven."
In a December meeting with Apple executives, the FDA described how it may regulate a glucometer that measures blood sugar, according to an FDA summary of the discussion.
Such a device could avoid regulation if used for nutrition, but if marketed to diabetics, it likely would be regulated as a medical device, according to the summary, first reported by the Apple Toolbox blog.
The tech companies are likely to start off focusing on non-medical applications, such as fitness and education.
Even an educational device would need a breakthrough from current technology, though, and some in the medical industry say the tech firms, new to the medical world, don't understand the core challenges.
"There is a cemetery full of efforts" to measure glucose in a non-invasive way, said DexCom chief executive Terrance Gregg, whose firm is known for minimally invasive techniques. To succeed would require "several hundred million dollars or even a billion dollars," he said.
Silicon Valley is already opening its vast wallet.
Medtronic Inc Senior Vice President of Medicine and Technology Stephen Oesterle recently said he now considers Google to be the medical device firm's next great rival, thanks to its funding for research and development, or R&D.
"We spend $1.5 billion a year on R&D at Medtronic – and it's mostly D," he told the audience at a recent conference. "Google is spending $8 billion a year on R&D and, as far as I can tell, it's mostly R."
Google has been public about some of its plans: it has developed a "smart" contact lens that measures glucose. In a blog post detailing plans for its smart contact lens, Google described an LED system that could warn of high or low blood sugar by flashing tiny lights. It has recently said it is looking for partners to bring the lens to market.
The device, which uses tiny chips and sensors that resemble bits of glitter to measure glucose levels in tears, is expected to be years away from commercial development, and skeptics wonder if it will ever be ready.
Previous attempts at accurate non-invasive measurement have bee