Like so many diabetics, Maggie Andrews has pricked her finger tens of thousands of times to test her blood sugar. Maggie’s case is a bit unusual, though, because her older sister, Laura, is hot on the trail to end those finger pricks for good.
“When you’re little and your younger sister constantly has to give herself shots, prick her finger, insert huge pump needles, it makes you want to change things,” said Laura Andrews. “Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to cure diabetes.” Her sister was diagnosed after falling ill on the way home from a rodeo 18 years ago.
Laura Andrews and her fellow Georgetown grad Kelly Zebrowski have cofounded Azurite, an early stage biotech company based in San Francisco. The company’s mission is to build the world’s first noninvasive continuous blood glucose monitor.
A New Approach to a Familiar Goal
The idea of a prickless, or noninvasive glucose monitor is not new, and various research groups are on the case. For instance, you may have heard of Google’s contact lens that determines blood glucose levels by measuring the composition of tears.
While the goal is familiar, Azurite’s approach is apparently quite original. Andrews and Zebrowski intend to measure blood glucose directly through an electromagnetic (EM) sensing system.
Current continuous glucose monitors are invasive and rely on the measurement of some secondary characteristic. For example, Google’s contact lens, which is still in the research stage and not yet available on the market, measures the glucose content of tears, not blood. Continuous monitors currently on the market are invasive, requiring a device that attaches to the body with adhesive and a needle that must be replaced every several days. These monitors measure base blood glucose figures on glucose values in interstitial fluid, the liquid that surrounds our cells and tissues.
Azurite’s idea is based on the fact that an electromagnetic signal, depending on its wavelength, can bounce off a surface and return to its source with a particular pattern reflective of the surface it encountered. Glucose molecules, like any material, reflect a unique electromagnetic signal based on their inherent electrical properties. So Azurite hopes to bounce an electromagnetic signal off the glucose in your blood, which would then return to a device carrying information about how much glucose it encountered along the journey.
Various research groups have successfully ascertained blood glucose levels by observing the electrical properties of glucose in the blood. In an article published in 2011, researchers at the University of Mississippi demonstrated that a microstrip patch antenna could be used to determine the glucose concentration within a sample of blood by measuring its electrical properties. Drawing from this research and the work of other research groups that are examining at the electrical properties of glucose, Azurite has modeled a novel approach that they hope will lead to a device that uses EM technology to measure those electrical properties remotely.
Andrews and Zebrowski are optimistic about the potential of EM technology, but they need to conduct a range of laboratory and clinical tests before promising that it will work. If such a device can reach the market, it will improve the medical care and quality of lives of people with diabetes by allowing for more consistent monitoring and fewer finger pricks.
Andrews and Zebrowski teamed up after working together at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. They saw the potential of applying EM technology, a tool they were using for an entirely different research project, to diabetes.
Azurite is determined to move beyond the theoretical and make a direct impact on the lives of people with diabetes. Andrews and Zebrowski are hopeful that this technology will lead to a product that combines the rich data of continuous sensing and the convenience and ease of a noninvasive meter.
Growing Up With Diabetes
Andrews’ aspiration to improve the lives of the millions of people living with diabetes was originally inspired by her very personal connection to the disease. Seeing her sister grow up with diabetes has helped her understand the potential of a continuous noninvasive glucose monitor to make things a bit easier. ”I hope that it will give people with diabetes a break from thinking about their blood sugar constantly, and take some of the hassle out of the disease.”
“I’ve always wanted to find something in research that could be taken from ‘bench to bedside,’” added Zebrowski.
Growing up with Maggie helped Laura Andrews understand how relentless and taxing diabetes can be. “By making it easier to test and track blood sugar, like current continuous glucose monitors do, I’m hoping it will be easier to feel better and have your blood sugar where you want it.”
As Andrews noted, the development of noninvasive glucose monitoring is a step forward, in the sense that finger pricks would be out the door. A product currently available in Europe, GluckTrack, represents an exciting development in this direction. But GlucoTrack does not incorporate continuous sensing technology, and Azurite hopes that EM technology could be the key to developing a noninvasive glucose monitor that is also continuous.
Another approach that Azurite hopes to improve on is the indirect measurement of blood glucose through interstitial fluid. This technique, used by some invasive continuous glucose monitors presently available and in development, involves a certain “lag time,” making it difficult to detect swings as they are happening. Also, any indirect measurement of blood glucose requires regular calibration (which, at present, requires finger pricks) in order for the device to function. Again, direct measurement of blood glucose through EM technology would reduce the need for calibration, improving accuracy and perhaps eliminating finger pricks and invasive monitors altogether.
Finally, a noninvasive continuous glucose monitor based on direct measurements of blood glucose would enable people with diabetes to consistently catch nighttime lows and other dangerous fluctuations. And having a steady source of data at all times rather than at a few points throughout the day will be a huge help for doctors and patients.
Maggie Andrews has been actively working with her sister to launch Azurite and secure the funding necessary to move forward with this research. In addition to the benefits she could see in her own life, Maggie knows that children with diabetes could avoid some of the challenges she experienced growing up.
“Having a device that accurately reads your glucose levels and alerts you when you are asleep would take so much stress out,” the younger Andrews says. She remembers times when she would wake up at night with dangerously low blood sugars, scared, confused, and weak. Sometimes, she fell unconscious. The Andrews sisters and Zebrowski hope that EM technology can help people of all ages living with diabetes avoid such dangerous, unpleasant experiences.
Laura Andrews and Kelly Zebrowski are currently raising money so that they can bring their research to the next stages of testing and clinical trial. While they remain cautious in their predictions and wary of falling into overconfidence and unrealistic promises, the pair of researchers believes their work – if it comes to fruition – has the potential to change living with diabetes for the better.
Leo Brown is a writer and the founder of newfoodculture.com, a blog that generates ideas and strategies that lead to healthy, sustainable living. After graduating from Williams College, he taught English at a university in Novosibirsk, Russia through the Fulbright program. Leo lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Leo is a violinist and runner, and he tweets at @newfoodculture and @leoebrown.