Google X Staff Meet With FDA Pointing to Possible Medical Device

Jan 10, 2014 12:01 am ET

Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Google Inc. sent employees with ties to its secretive X research group to meet with U.S. regulators who oversee medical devices, raising the possibility of a new product that may involve biosensors from the unit that developed computerized glasses.

The meeting included at least four Google workers, some of whom have connections with Google X -- and have done research on sensors, including contact lenses that help wearers monitor their biological data. Google staff met with those at the Food and Drug Administration who regulate eye devices and diagnostics for heart conditions, according to the agency’s public calendar.

As technology and medicine merge to give consumers more control over their health, innovators from mobile-health application developers to DNA analysis companies have struggled to meet the demands of federal oversight. The FDA ordered Google-backed 23andMe Inc. in November to halt sales of its personal gene test, saying it hadn’t gained agency approval.

Google, expanding beyond its core search-engine business, is investing in long-term projects at its X lab that may lead to new market opportunities, including the Glass devices, driverless cars and high-altitude air balloons to provide wireless Internet access. While some projects may not deliver significant profits and revenue, the company is committed to making bets on research and development, according to Chief Executive Officer Larry Page.

“Our main job is to figure out how to obviously invest more to achieve greater outcomes for the world, for the company,” Page said during a call with analysts last July. “And I think those opportunities are clearly there.”

Google Glass

Already, Google has introduced Glass devices, computerized eyewear that lets users check e-mail or access their favorite music. The devices, now being used by testers and developers, aren’t yet widely available for consumers.

FDA’s public calendar also shows the Google representatives met with the head of the agency’s office that reviews device applications for marketing approval, and the FDA adviser who wrote the agency’s guidelines for mobile medical apps. The FDA classified Google’s visit to Silver Spring, Maryland, where the agency is based, as a meet and greet. Jennifer Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the agency, confirmed the meeting and declined to provide further information.

One of the Google participants was Andrew Conrad, who joined X last year. Conrad is a former chief scientist at Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings and co-founder of its National Genetics Institute.

Among other attendees was Brian Otis and Zenghe “Zach” Liu. Courtney Hohne, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the company’s meeting with the FDA.

Engineering Work

Otis is on leave to Google from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he is an associate professor in the electrical engineering department, according to the university’s website. Otis has worked on biosensors and holds a patent that involves a wireless powered contact lens with a biosensor.

One of Otis’ colleagues is Babak Parviz, who was involved in the Google Glass project and has talked about putting displays on contact lenses, including lenses that monitor wearer’s health.

“Noninvasive monitoring of the wearer’s biomarkers and health indicators could be a huge future market,” Parviz wrote in a 2009 paper titled “Augmented Reality in a Contact Lens.”

In 2012, the two were among the co-authors in a paper titled “Glucose Sensor for Wireless Contact-Lens Tear Glucose Monitoring” for the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits.

‘Wearable’ Lenses

“Advances in technology scaling, sensor devices, and ultra low-power circuit design techniques have now made it possible to integrate complex wireless electronics onto the surface of a wearable contact lens,” according to the paper.

In a presentation, Parviz said a tear drop provides many different components to give sensors various types of information about how a body is operating.

“There is actually one interface on the surface of the body that can literally provide us with a window of what happens inside, and that’s the surface of the eye,” Parviz said in a video posted on YouTube. “It’s a very interesting chemical interface.”

Liu, formerly with the medical-device manufacturer Abbott Laboratories, also holds a patent that involves devices that use bodily fluids to read levels of human substances such as glucose or cholesterol.

--Editors: Andrew Pollack, Reed Stevenson