In a first, scientists invent contact lenses that could identify tumors from tears

What if these contact lenses could not just diagnose but potentially treat cancer?
Loukia Papadopoulos
Contact lenses can do more than improve eyesight.jpg
Contact lenses can do more than improve eyesight.


It's the dreaded C-word. The mere mention sends shivers down the spine. That's because it's not only difficult to treat but also invasive to diagnose. Biopsies can require deep cuts, which leave marks behind.

Non-invasive cancer-detecting contact lenses

That’s why it was so exciting to discover that a group of researchers was working on non-invasive contact lenses that could both detect cancer and potentially maybe even cure it.

The new research is led by study author Yangzhi Zhu, a biomedical engineer at the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation, a non-profit research organization in California. He told Inverse that the new development “is pretty exciting compared to the other current techniques in this field.”

Before you get too excited about the technology's development, it should be noted that it has thus far only been tried in lab cells. But that does not mean it couldn’t be tested in humans once proved safe.

How does it work? The device identifies cellular byproducts in tears called exosomes that are thought to indicate tumor growth somewhere in the body.

The lenses are equipped with an antibody that can spot and latch onto another antibody found on these exosomes. When these two antibodies come together, they turn red.

In a first, scientists invent contact lenses that could identify tumors from tears
Could this be the future of cancer treatment?

This red color indicates the presence of tumor cells. The results are so powerful that they can even be observed by the naked eye.

A speedy and advantageous option

Needless to say, this technique offers many advantages, including speed. Whereas standard blood tests, biopsies, or CT scans took several days, or even weeks, to produce a diagnosis, the lenses offer results within 30 minutes.

The process is also a painless one as it does not require any incisions or surgery.

What’s next for this promising device? Zhu and his team are currently working toward a study that will test the device on rabbits. The new experiments could prove the contact lens’ safety and allow them to be approved for tests on humans.

If it all goes to plan, Zhu and his team hope the contact lens will go beyond cancer testing, such as diagnosing other conditions like certain autoimmune diseases. They may one day even be used to deliver drugs serving as a treatment for diseases rather than a simple diagnostic tool.

“The microchambers can not only support a [disease] sensor but can also be a vehicle to drugs and vaccines,” Zhu told Inverse. “This can also be used as a therapeutic device.”

The study does make one look at contact lenses in a whole new light. Previously only used to make people see better, the new devices may have many diagnostic and therapeutic uses that few could have imagined they could possess.

So the next time you put on your contact lenses, think about the miracle this technology is and the many advances it offers. This could very well make your tears worthwhile.

The study was first published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.


Exosomes, a form of small extracellular vesicles, play a crucial role in the metastasis of cancers and thus are investigated as potential biomarkers for cancer diagnosis. However, conventional detection methods like immune-based assay and microRNA analyses are expensive and require tedious pretreatments and lengthy analysis time. Since exosomes related to cancers are reported to exist in tears, a poly(2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate) contact lens embedded with antibody-conjugated signaling microchambers (ACSM-PCL) capable of detecting tear exosomes is reported. The ACSM-PCL exhibits high optical transparency and mechanical properties, along with extraordinary biocompatibility and good sensitivity to exosomes. A gold nanoparticle colorimetric assay is employed to visualize captured exosomes. The ACSM-PCL can detect exosomes in the pH range of 6.5–7.4 (similar to the human tear pH) and have a strong recovery yield in bovine serum albumin solutions. In particular, the ACSM-PCL can detect exosomes in various solutions, including regular buffer, cell culture media from various cell lines, and human tears. Finally, the ACSM-PCL can differentiate expression of exosome surface proteins hypothesized as cancer biomarkers. With these encouraging results, this ACSM-PCL is promised to be the next generation smart contact lens as an easy-to-use, rapid, noninvasive monitoring platform of cancer pre-screening and supportive diagnosis.

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