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Google Smart Lenses Get Boost From Alcon Owner Novartis

Google Inc. (GOOG) is teaming up with Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG (NOVN) to develop smart contact lenses with embedded electronics to improve vision and monitor health.

Novartis’s Alcon unit will work with Google’s secretive Google X division on lenses with non-invasive sensors, microchips and embedded miniaturized electronics to monitor insulin levels for people with diabetes, or to restore the eye’s natural focus in people who can no longer read without glasses, Basel-based Novartis said in a statement today. No terms of the deal were disclosed.

Novartis expects to get the first prototypes by early next year and may start marketing the products in about five years, Novartis Chief Executive Officer Joe Jimenez said in a phone interview today. Jimenez identified eye care as one of three key divisions, along with branded and generic drugs, in announcing a $28.5 billion restructuring of the company in April that involved selling off the vaccines and animal-health units and buying GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s cancer business.

“The promise here is the holy grail of vision care, to be able to replicate the natural functioning of the eye,” Jimenez said today. “Think about a contact lens that could help the eye autofocus on that newspaper and then when you look up it would autofocus in the distance.”

Smart contact lens prototype. Courtesy ©Google

Marketing Plan

Novartis rose 0.3 percent to 80.65 Swiss francs at 1:18 p.m. in Zurich. The stock has gained 20 percent in the past year, including reinvested dividends, compared with a 21 percent advance in the Bloomberg Europe Pharmaceutical Index.

Jimenez said Novartis will be responsible for the marketing and commercialization of the products, and that both companies will benefit financially, without being more specific. Novartis will commit “a significant effort” to developing the lenses to accelerate their development, he said.

Jimenez said Novartis had tried for years to develop a lens that would replicate the function of the eye, and held talks with Google X’s Andrew Conrad in Baselshortly after the Mountain View, California-based company said in January it was developing smart contact lenses. That announcement came afterBloomberg News reported that Google had met with officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who oversee medical devices.

Conrad joined Google X last year. He is a former chief scientist at Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings and co-founder of its National Genetics Institute.

“Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help the quality of life for millions of people,” Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, said in today’s statement.

Jimenez said technology would become more important in pharmaceuticals as patients take a more active role in their own health. Novartis is looking at ways to bring technology to other areas of health care, he said, declining to be more specific.

“Some of our biggest health-care issues that we will face over the next 10 years are going to be solved by bringing together high technology with biology,” he said. “More and more health issues will be addressed in a non-traditional approach like this.”

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