Apple Inc. has a delicate underway that dates back to the Steve Jobs era and its goal is to deliver noninvasive and continuous blood glucose monitoring.
The goal of this secret endeavor — dubbed E5 — is to measure how much glucose is in someone’s body without needing to prick the skin for blood. After hitting major milestones recently, the company now believes it could eventually bring glucose monitoring to market, according to people familiar with the effort. It promises to be a massive game changer if and when it comes to the market.
If perfected, such a breakthrough would be a boon to diabetics and help cement Apple as a powerhouse in health care. Adding the monitoring system to the Apple Watch, the ultimate goal, would also make that device an essential item for millions of diabetics around the world.
There’s still years of work ahead, but the move could upend a multibillion-dollar industry. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, and they typically rely on a device that pokes the skin for a blood sample. There are also patches from Dexcom Inc. and Abbott Laboratories that are inserted into the skin but need to be replaced about every two weeks.
Apple is taking a different approach, using a chip technology known as silicon photonics and a measurement process called optical absorption spectroscopy. The system uses lasers to emit specific wavelengths of light into an area below the skin where there is interstitial fluid — substances that leak out of capillaries — that can be absorbed by glucose. The light is then reflected back to the sensor in a way that indicates the concentration of glucose. An algorithm then determines a person’s blood glucose level.
Hundreds of engineers are working on the project as part of Apple’s Exploratory Design Group, or XDG, a previously unreported effort akin to X, the moonshot division of Alphabet Inc. It’s one of the most covert initiatives at the famously secretive Apple.
The news weighed on shares of diabetes technology companies on Wednesday, with both Dexcom and Abbott falling more than 3% before recovering. Apple gained 0.3% to $148.91 by the close in New York.
But there’s a reason it’s considered a moonshot goal. Numerous startups — and some of the world’s largest companies — have tried and failed to develop a noninvasive monitoring system. In 2014, Google announced plans to make smart contact lenses that could measure blood glucose through teardrops. It shelved the complex project in 2018.