A bloodless way to test blood sugar has long been the stuff of science fiction. But, now, a group of researchers in Wales is moving an innovative idea of drawing blood without puncturing the skin from the conceptual world of Star Trek to perhaps being available at a pharmacy down the street.
“This is an important application of research that we’ve been working on for some time now,” says Adrian Porch, a professor at the School of Engineering at Cardiff University, in Wales. “It’s a noninvasive, safe way of tracking blood sugar levels in diabetics without needing to draw blood. And, while it’s not yet perfect, it’s an attractive research-grade proposition.”
The method that Porch is referring to is a small device, about the size of a Post-It note that is attached to the arm or leg using an adhesive. Once attached, the device uses microwaves to test blood on a continuous basis without breaking the skin.
Porch says the device puts out about microwaves at a frequency of 2 gigaherz, which is a similar frequency to that used in microwave ovens or cell phones, but a million times less microwave power than an oven, or a thousand times less power than a phone. For that reason, Porch says it is completely safe.
Once the device is attached it sends continuous data to an app or a computer. “You get a graph, basically, Porch says. “It delivers an idea of the rate of change in blood glucose levels. It can also alert users to significant rates of change so they can get out ahead of low blood sugars.”
Porch cautions that the device needs to undergo more testing and will not be available to the public within the next three years, at least, provided the clinical testing goes well.
Those three years will be on top of the considerable amount of time and money that’s already been invested in developing the device. Research into the device started in 2008, with Porch and his colleague Dr Jan Beutler. To date, the Wellcome Trust, a British-based health charity, has contributed more than £1 million, or $1.4 million, to the project.
Porch is not a diabetes researcher per se. He is a physicist and has been working with a small but dedicated group of health researchers, including Dr. Heungjae Choi from Cardiff and Professor Stephen Luzio, from Swansea University’s College of Medicine, where so far three clinical trials have been conducted on the device.
“In June and July this summer we are conducting a clinical trial involving fifty people,” Porch says, who along with his colleagues served as test subject previously. “Which is good because I don’t have many fingers left for testing. I can only imagine what diabetics have to put up with.”
The clinical trials phase of testing is crucial to making the device succeed. In the past, other attempts to develop a noninvasive method of testing blood glucose have come undone when in the testing round.
One attempted method measured the ways in which light scatters when it hits the skin because of the way glucose levels changes the chemistry of the skin. Other answers were sought in measuring glucose molecules on the skin’s surface by bouncing light off the skin and measuring light wavelengths to see how much glucose was absorbed into those wavelengths. And yet another method was to use electromagnetic waves to painlessly puncture the skin and measure glucose levels. The results have been dispiriting, such as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where 15 years of research using into spectroscopy near-infrared light have so far not yielded results. One reason why Porch’s method of using microwaves could be the answer is their deep penetration into tissue compared with these other methods, which only access the skin’s surface, and which is why microwaves are capable of heating a cup of coffee.
Success in developing a noninvasive method of testing blood sugar could significantly improve the way people treat their diabetes because many people are reticent to test frequently because, quite simply, it’s unpleasant to do so.
Despite the lack of success, efforts to come up with a noninvasive method to test blood continues because the payoff for a company, or group, that eventually develops and markets such a device could be huge. The global market value of diabetes therapies and treatments is more than $48 billion a year. The segment of testing blood sugar topped $10 billion a year in 2015.
For Porch, and his colleagues, however, the point of their research is to help people with diabetes improve their lives by improving how they manage their condition.
“This is a new domain for me, working on humans and trying to solve a puzzle with the use of technology that can impact the lives of so many,” Porch says. “Diabetes is a 21st century crisis and it’s exciting to work on developing something that can help so many people worldwide.”