Q & A with Middlebury native, Google employee working toward diabetes solutions

Nathan Pletcher answers The Elkhart Truth's questions about his work on a contact lens that could benefit diabetics.

Posted on March 10, 2014 at 1:32 p.m.

ELKHART — Nathan Pletcher grew up in Middlebury, graduated from Northridge High School in 1996, and now he’s a full-time employee at Google.

He graduated from Goshen College in 2000 with a degree in physics and has since joined the Google[x] division as a hardware engineer where he is working on creating a smart contact lens for diabetics.

Q: What is the smart contact lens project?

Pletcher: Diabetes affects so many people worldwide, and it's a difficult disease to manage. Diabetics need to monitor blood glucose very closely, and this means frequent finger pricking that's not only inconvenient but also painful.

With all the advances in electronics over the years, we wanted to see if we could miniaturize the electronics and sensors to the point that we could accurately measure the glucose level in tears. If this could lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage the disease someday, that would be awesome.

In the course of working on this project I've learned much more about the difficulties of diabetes and heard many personal stories. To me, it's the human element of this project that's most inspiring.

Q: Do you have a personal connection to the project?

Pletcher: My grandfather developed diabetes. It's a very difficult and disruptive disease to manage, and I saw this personally through his experience.

Q: What is your role in the project?

Pletcher: I'm an electrical engineer and I design integrated circuits (chips). As such, I'm part of the team that designs the chip inside the smart contact lens. I joined Google[x] a little over two years ago to work on the project.

Q: How is the project doing?

Pletcher: The project has gone really well so far and we've progressed rapidly to produce our prototype device. It's still early in the development process and we're continuing to refine the device, but we're optimistic.

We're looking for partners who are experts in this field to take the core technology we've developed and turn it into a system that people can use.

Q: How do smart contact lenses work?

Pletcher: Our smart contact lens is like a normal soft contact lens, but we've embedded a small wireless chip and glucose sensor inside. When worn like a normal lens, it can measure the glucose level in the tears and transmit the readings wirelessly off of the lens.

One possibility we're exploring is to embed really small LEDs inside the lens that could light up when the glucose level crosses high or low thresholds and be visible to the user.

Q: Have there been trials yet?

Pletcher: We’ve completed a number of clinical research studies and are in discussions with the FDA. We look forward to working with the agency and our potential partners to see what potential this technology might hold.

We’ve had optometrists advising us on the lens and we've done extensive testing to ensure there are no toxicity or biocompatibility issues.

Q: What did you do in Elkhart County that prepared you for your involvement in the smart lens project?

Pletcher: At Goshen College I studied physics and electronics, which got me interested in designing electronics and continuing my education in electrical engineering. I also had the opportunity to participate in X-ray crystallography research at Goshen College, which helped prepare me for my future research work in graduate school.

Nick Wesman contributed to this report.


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