Sometimes the simple way is the best way, whether it’s learning lessons from your mother or doing what you’re good at. In the world of miniature medical sensors, keeping things simple has proved to be a breakthrough for one researcher at a company working to make it easier and cheaper to make glucose sensors.
“My mother is a diabetic,” says Dr. Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman, who founded Integrated Medical Sensors, Inc., (IMS) in Irvine, CA. “She was diagnosed with type 2 and I wanted to do something in medicine to help her. ”
That “something” started as a graduate project at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, where Mujeeb-U-Rahman received both his M.S. and his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. The idea Mujeeb-U-Rahman had was to make a smaller, much cheaper continuous glucose sensor than was then available.
CGMs have revolutionized diabetes management for many people with diabetes. Blood glucose monitors allow you to test your blood sugar levels and gain a snapshot of where the level is at that moment. CGMs, however, monitor blood glucose levels continuously. A small sensor placed beneath the skin sends signals at timed intervals to a device that then displays blood sugar levels. The continuous nature of glucose tracking allows people to correct for high blood sugar levels, and correct for low blood sugar levels, on a likewise continuous and more immediate basis.
Mujeeb-U-Rahman realized a couple of basic, but very crucial concepts as he tackled building a better CGM in grad school and founded his company in 2015.
“I knew that this would not be a new product that needed new infrastructure,” Mujeeb-U-Rahman says. “This was a new idea based on an old technology.”
Microchips and microprocessors that gather, generate, and send information have been used in electronics for decades. They are now used in phones and other miniature electronics to astounding effect.
“Not only that,” Mujeeb-U-Rahman says, “but the external device to read the signals exists too. You put an app on a watch or a cell phone, and you don’t have to build and sell a dedicated external device to read the signals.”
Other CGMs have required a dedicated external monitor that cost upward of $700, but are now moving toward app-based systems.
Mujeeb-U-Rahman realized he did not have to reinvent any wheels to reach his goal of a smaller, cheaper CGM.
“Intel microprocessors made all this possible years ago,” Mujeeb-U-Rahman says. “They put everything on one chip. We saw this with computers. A long time ago a computer was the size of a room, and now it can be held in your hand.”
Mujeeb-U-Rahman said he originally explored the idea of optical technology, but rejected that for a simple reason: He’s an electrical engineer, not an optical engineer.
That, however, did not mean he would not need assistance to develop his idea.
“I reached out to experts at Caltech,” Mujeeb-U-Rahman says. “We are blessed that people have been helping who have expertise in these areas.”
After collaborating with his Ph.D. advisor, and Dr. Meisam Honarvar Nazari and Mehmet Sencan from Caltech, and others from and other places, Mujeeb-U-Rahman came up with the first prototype of a CGM sensor.
“It actually worked,” he says. “After, we had to develop it further.”
Further work was rewarded when IMS won first prize in the 2016 Diabetes Innovation Challenge, and a share of the $150,000 prize for developing “an accurate, fully implantable, wireless, continuous glucose monitoring platform that is 10 times cheaper and lasts for 10 times longer than the current CGM systems.”
Mujeeb-U-Rahman says the size of the implantable sensor is “a quarter grain of rice, or one-third the size of a sesame seed, depending on what you like to eat.” He compares that as being 1,000 times smaller than the next smallest sensor available, which is about the size of a cold capsule. The IMS sensor lasts for months and would cost about $1000 a year, compared to $4000 for sensors now available.
IMS and its three employees have also been awarded grants form the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for its work.
So far the company has tested the sensors successfully on lab animals and will apply to the FDA to begin human trials this year, Mujeeb-U-Rahman says.
This level of success, however, stems from a simple and singular place.
“We are a mission-driven company,” Mujeeb-U-Rahman says. “I was inspired to get into this field because of my mother. Our co-founder, his aunt is diabetic. We feel the grand idea behind what we are doing. We really love the human connection to our work.”
And, while lager companies are working on achieving the same goals, Mujeeb-U-Rahman says the people in his company are motivated by much more than money and logistical success.
“We are driven by pure commitment,” he says. “We can’t quit. It’s hard to do this kind of work, but it’s fun. We do this to help people, and change their lives for the better.”
*Picture for illustration purposes only and is not of actual product.