Apple is rumored to have taken another small step toward developing a groundbreaking blood glucose monitoring feature for the Apple Watch, but the feature is still years away.
A new report from Bloomberg (opens in new tab) claims Apple has achieved a “significant milestone” in bringing non-invasive, continuous blood glucose monitoring to the Apple Watch, with the project now considered the “proof-of-concept” stage. The main change seems to be that the technology is now viable, but “needs to be scaled down to a more practical size”.
In theory, this next-gen form of blood glucose monitoring could be life-changing for diabetic patients. Many people with the condition need to monitor their blood sugar levels, which is traditionally done using fingerstick testing. More recently, it is possible to do this with flash glucose monitors or CGMs (continuous glucose monitors) such as the Freestyle Libre 3.
The latter can send readings to third-party apps on the Apple Watch, but the new technology described in Apple’s secret ‘E5’ project could take the convenience of checking blood sugar to another level. Patches need to be changed every few weeks, but Apple’s technology apparently uses a technology called “silicon photonics” that shoots light through the interstitial fluid of your skin to determine your blood glucose level.
But while the technology is promising, it is still a long way off. Bloomberg says there are “years of work ahead” and the system has been in development for more than 12 years. Apple engineers are apparently working on a prototype that’s “about the size of an iPhone,” so integrating it into an Apple Watch is a long way off.
The proof of concept stage is very early in a product’s life cycle and is far from a guarantee that an idea will become reality for consumers. For example, in 2014 a Google firm started a project with the pharmaceutical company Novartis that aimed to develop a glucose-sensitive contact lens, but it was eventually abandoned (opens in new tab) after finding there was “insufficient consistency in our measurements”.
Still, the news of a step forward for this potential Apple Watch technology, however small, holds promise for the growing number of diabetic patients (1 in 10 people in the US). (opens in new tab)and 1 in 14 people in the UK (opens in new tab)). While many of the world’s best smartwatches can already help you monitor your blood glucose levels, they mostly rely on a connection to external monitors to do so and are not classified as medical devices.
Analysis: No upcoming Apple Watch feature
Apple has gradually added new health-oriented sensors to the Apple Watch – from the heart rate sensor for taking an electrocardiogram (or EKG) on the Apple Watch Series 4 to the blood oxygen sensor on the Apple Watch Series 6.
These certainly have their benefits, and Apple is keen to promote their use in some recent heart health research projects (opens in new tab). But they’re not replacements for medical-grade devices, either, meaning the Apple Watch is more of a screening device for the latter – and the same will probably be true for the rumored blood glucose monitoring technology.
As the Apple Watch’s current sensors show, the hurdle is less in miniaturizing the technology and more in getting a high enough level of accuracy in health measurements. Matt Evans, BingoTingo’s Fitness & Wellness editor, explains: “It’s worth noting the similarities between this and the Apple Watch’s electrocardiogram feature, which is designed to detect signs of atrial fibrillation. Getting devices for medical use legally authorized by governing bodies such as the FDA is just a suggestion to go to the doctor and get your heart checked properly – although this can still be incredibly helpful.”
“Even the Huawei Watch D, with its special blood pressure hardware, cannot be used for medical diagnosis purposes,” he says. “It’s unlikely that diabetics, who need to constantly monitor their blood sugar levels, will be able to use an Apple Watch for anything other than a quick estimate, as technology applied early isn’t always accurate and certainly won’t be.” certified for use in a medical environment. However, sometimes a notification to be properly monitored is all you need.”
As for Google’s glucose sensitive contact lens project, the problem that eventually sank the project (opens in new tab) was “insufficient consistency in our measurements”. Apple’s apparent breakthrough is certainly promising, and few companies can match its financial clout. But the promise of non-invasive blood glucose monitoring isn’t something that should affect your smartwatch purchase decision any time soon.